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Late for Work 11/29: Ravens Among Least-Trusted Division Leaders, Bengals 'Clearly Most Dangerous AFC North Team'

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QB Lamar Jackson

Ravens Among Least-Trusted Division Leaders, Bengals 'Clearly Most Dangerous AFC North Team*'*

As if the Ravens' stunning loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars wasn't painful enough, the Cincinnati Bengals' hard-fought win on the road over the Tennessee Titans made it sting all the more.

As part of the fallout from those results, the Bengals have pulled into a first-place tie with the Ravens in the AFC North. It was just two weeks ago that a reporter from the Athletic said Baltimore will win the division by at least three games, and the Ravens were hailed as a threat to be the No. 1 seed in the conference.

The Ravens currently hold the tiebreaker for first place by virtue of their victory over the Bengals in Week 5. Also in the Ravens' favor is that they are 2-0 in the division while the Bengals are 1-3. Nevertheless, there is now a groundswell of support for the Bengals being the best team in the division.

In ESPN's Dan Graziano's column on Week 12 overreactions, he said the notion that the Bengals will repeat as AFC North champions is not an overreaction.

"It's not going to be easy," Graziano said. "Baltimore's schedule looks a lot softer than Cincinnati's the rest of the way. The only team left on the Ravens' schedule that has a winning record is the Bengals, who host Baltimore in a Week 18 game that could decide this division. Meanwhile, Cincinnati goes home to play the Kansas City Chiefs next week and still has to play the Cleveland Browns (who kind of own them, and are getting Deshaun Watson back), the Bucs and the New England Patriots on the road, then the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore at home to close out the season.

"The Bengals are a lot more likely to trip up once or twice on their schedule than the Ravens are. That said, Baltimore just blew another fourth-quarter lead and lost to Jacksonville while the Bengals were beating the Titans. Lamar Jackson's offense isn't exactly clicking right now. [Joe] Burrow's is, and it's likely to get Ja'Marr Chase back next week. If Baltimore lets the Bengals hang around to the point where that Week 18 game is for the division, I wouldn't bet against Burrow pulling it off."

NFL.com's Adam Schein wrote: "Yes, the Ravens' remaining schedule is easy. No, they aren't good enough to take advantage. I still think the Bengals are clearly the most dangerous AFC North team."

Schein ranked the nine worst losses of Week 12, and the Ravens' collapse against the Jaguars came in at No. 2.

"I've never taken the cheese on these Ravens being true Super Bowl contenders. Never put them in the class of the Chiefs, Bills or Dolphins on the AFC side," Schein wrote. "In fact, I have more belief in the Bengals and Titans, too. For the second straight year, Baltimore has been injury-riddled and just a little off all season.

"Well, the bloom is officially off the rose after Sunday's choke job. The Ravens were up 19-10 on the three-win Jaguars with 13 minutes remaining. They even scored another fourth-quarter touchdown, supplementing it with a successful two-point conversion. And yet, they still lost in regulation."

NFL.com columnist Jim Trotter placed the NFL's division leaders into "trust tiers." The Ravens landed in the "not at all" category.

"I was prepared to have the Ravens higher on this list until some disturbing demons reappeared on Sunday, namely an inability to close out drives on offense and to finish games on defense," Trotter wrote. "If you want to be viewed as a legitimate threat, you don't go 2 of 5 in the red zone against a Jacksonville defense that was allowing touchdowns on 59 percent of opponents' trips inside of its 20-yard line. And you definitely don't let the Jaguars rally for a 28-27 victory by driving 75 yards for a touchdown and decisive two-point conversion in the final two minutes.

"We can talk about dropped passes or interceptions, but that's all it would be — talk. The Ravens thought they had turned the corner on these issues, but clearly they have not."

Michael Irvin Says the Ravens Are Pretenders

Michael Irvin and Dan Orlovsky engaged in a spirited debate on ESPN's "First Take:" about whether the Ravens are contenders or pretenders.

Irvin isn't buying the Ravens as one of the AFC's elite teams.

"You got an offense that can't win you games, you got a defense that can stop offenses late in the game. I don't see you get a contender out of that," Irvin said. "I don't even see Lamar with those beautiful runs that we used to see. I used to see a highlight a week on some kind of run Lamar did. A highlight a week. Well I ain't seen none in weeks of any kind of running that he does! … We've been talking about this passing game forever. Lamar ranks 25th or lower in all major statistical categories in the passing game. This team is a pretender."

Despite the Ravens blowing yet another two-score lead Sunday, Orlovsky is still bullish on Baltimore.

"They're bona fide contenders," Orlovsky said. "There's a reality that late in football games they somehow give it away. They like wait for the opportunity to lose the game. … This is a great football team that does not play great when it matters the most.

"I've said this for two months now: They haven't played a 'B' game. They're a 7-4 football team that has played 'C.' I believe with [John] Harbaugh, Lamar, that defense that is still good but they've got to find a way to be great in the biggest moments, that they're going to put that month together, that five-week stretch together where it all clicks, and the turnover doesn't happen in the fourth quarter, and the defense gets off the field, and Marcus Peters makes a big play, or [Marlon' Humphrey] makes a big play, and they put that stretch together of 'A' football. And when they do that, they can beat anybody in the NFL. To sit here and say they're pretenders discounts everything that they do 90 percent of their games."

Don't Be Surprised if Ravens-Bengals Season Finale Is Played in Prime Time

As noted above, the season finale between the Ravens and Bengals in Cincinnati could possibly be for the division title, a scenario that seems more plausible than it did heading into Week 12.

Sports Illustrated's Mitch Goldich looked ahead to the Week 18 slate games and ranked them in order of likelihood that they would be flexed to the Sunday night prime time slot. Not surprisingly, Ravens-Bengals was No. 1.

"This is the best game on the slate. If the Bengals make last year's playoff run look like the norm for them going forward, Joe Burrow is going to get the same type of treatment Patrick Mahomes got in the second year of his run with the Chiefs. In other words: Get used to seeing them on TV," Goldich wrote. "I am personally picking the Ravens to win the AFC North, but the Bengals are the defending champs. Whoever is ahead Sunday morning of Week 18, I could envision both teams being in the playoff field and this game deciding the division crown.

"I also think the atmosphere will be fun in Cincinnati. Last year's playoff run featured a Saturday afternoon game at home, followed by two road games and the Super Bowl. In Week 17, the Bengals host the Bills on Monday night. I'd be up for seeing the Cincy faithful in the cold at night two weeks in a row. Game 272 always has a chance to be the game of the year. If we get Ravens-Bengals, we may see a perfect storm from the stakes of the game to the quality of the play to the interest in the players and teams involved. It's almost too bad we have to wait 18 weeks to see it."

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