Mink: The Ravens would obviously prefer to have Lamar Jackson play, but I get the sense that his teammates have understood that there's a chance Jackson might not be healthy enough to do so.
The team has rallied around Tyler Huntley and rookie Anthony Brown, and I get the feeling that players still feel confident in their chances to win. I feel the same for this basic reason: a strong run game and a dominant defense can mask other weaknesses.
The Ravens haven't had a potent passing game since early in the season. They've had to find other ways to move the ball, and they've done so. The Ravens only averaged 42 fewer yards than the Bengals did on offense this year. Baltimore averaged 347 yards per game from Weeks 4-12 and 312 yards per game from Weeks 14-18. While the disparity in points (22 to 13) has been drastic, it's been less so in yards. Where the Ravens have struggled is in the red zone.
Baltimore will have to run the ball well in Cincinnati, and I believe it can with this offensive line humming and J.K. Dobbins looking strong (and coming off a week's rest). Hopefully Gus Edwards is ready to go after last week's head injury. If Baltimore runs the ball well and punches it in the end zone more often than not, it can put up enough points because, on the flip side, I just don't see the Ravens giving up too many on defense.
We don't know how much the Bengals offense was holding back in last week's game, but Baltimore's defense looked good – really good. They have swagger heading into this game, and I think they can keep a cap on the Bengals' scoring as long as they don't give up big passing plays (they've allowed a league-low four big-play touchdowns this year).
The comparison to the 2009 wild-card game in New England is interesting because, yes, a hobbled Joe Flacco barely threw the ball. The Ravens defense pounced on multiple turnovers early in that game and Ray Rice took the first play from scrimmage 83 yards for a touchdown, kicking off a 234-yard day on the ground. That kind of game is hard to replicate, but even if the Ravens got a watered-down version of it, that could be enough to win in Cincinnati. Baltimore will have to make some plays in the passing game, but I think the Ravens are strong enough in other areas to overcome the absence of Jackson (if that's the case) as long as they don't fall behind big early.
Downing: Great question. Both of those players were difference makers after their respective trades. Marcus Peters probably made more splash plays, and he had an unforgettable debut with that pick-six against Seattle that helped propel the Ravens on a 12-game winning streak to finish the regular season. Peters brought his ball hawking ability to Baltimore's defense and quickly earned a contract extension.
But I'd probably have to point to Smith based on his overall impact. He has become an instant leader and made everyone better on defense. Patrick Queen has played like an All-Pro with Smith by his side. The defense went from 20th in points allowed per game without him, to second-best in the NFL (14.7 points) since the trade. Smith is a tone setter. He's a friendly and respected player in the locker room, but he flips the switch once he gets on the field. Teammates follow his lead, and that was evident during and after Sunday's game against the Bengals. All eyes will be on Smith during Sunday's wild-card game, and the Ravens will count on him to slow Cincinnati's high-powered offense.
Mink: Speaking of Peters, I do think the impact of his absence has been somewhat overlooked the past three weeks. Even though Brandon Stephens played well in his two games stepping in for Peters, and Daryl Worley made some big hits last Sunday in Cincinnati, there's just no replacing all the intangibles and instincts of Peters.
Peters adds a different playmaking dynamic and makes quarterbacks think twice about testing him. The Ravens have played a lot of zone coverage this year as they mix and match their approach. That will continue Sunday in Cincinnati, and Joe Burrow will have that in the back of his mind.
Plus, I just think Peters adds a different kind of swagger to this defense, which is already feeling pretty pumped up after last week's game in Cincinnati. It's going to be a physical game, likely with plenty of trash talking going both ways. That's right up Peters' alley.
Downing: There's no doubt that Sunday's game was chippy. This rivalry seems to be ramping up in recent years, and it felt that way in watching the Week 18 matchup. In talking with and listening to Ravens players after Sunday's game, it sure seemed like there was real excitement about getting a rematch against the Bengals in the wild-card round. Smith set the tone in that regard, telling reporters that "those guys know that when we come back next week, we'll be here. I'm excited and I think it's going to be a great opportunity for us to show the world exactly what we're going to do."
Some Bengals players also took exception to the way the Ravens played the game, suggesting afterwards that there was dirty play from Baltimore's side. I didn't see anything dirty from the Ravens, and Head Coach John Harbaugh also disputed that notion. The Ravens played a tough, physical game, which is what's expected in an AFC North rivalry, but that all took place between the whistles. But that doesn't change how the Bengals feel, which will only elevate the intensity of Sunday's game. These teams don't seem to like each other very much, and we should be in store for another physical football game.