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Mailbag: How Do the Ravens Avoid Another Cincy Heartbreaker?

OLB Matthew Judon
OLB Matthew Judon

Mink: The Bengals are playing surprisingly well without Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon –their two top offensive weapons. Backup quarterback Brandon Allen is dealing and veteran running back Gio Bernard is looking dynamic. Plus, rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins is taking off. As Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday, the Bengals are playing their best football "by far" this season.

Here's the "Crazy Stat of the Week" that will make you worried. The Bengals have won 12 straight games when entering their home finale with a losing record. So that doesn't even count for their 2017 shocker at M&T Bank Stadium. The Bengals have been the NFL's best "spoiler" for more than a decade.

However, here's why I don't think the Ravens suffer another 2017 letdown. First of all, the Ravens are just a better team than they were three years ago. Baltimore has the best point differential in the league.

Second, Lamar Jackson is tough for struggling teams to beat because it's incredibly hard to stop both his arm and legs. Maybe they can lock down one, but it takes a really good team to contain both enough for their offense to outscore Baltimore.

I think the Bengals will struggle to stop the Ravens' rushing attack. Their run defense is in the bottom quarter of the league. And conversely, I don't think they will be able to run as well as they have recently. They ran all over the Texans, in part, because Houston has the second-worst run defense in the NFL.

Downing: I feel like every week we get a question about using Dobbins more in some capacity. I get it, the second-round pick has been fantastic and just set the rookie franchise record for most rushing touchdowns (7) in a season. The Ravens have incorporated him into the passing game in some capacity, and he 18 catches for 120 yards this year. I like Dobbins' ability as a pass catcher – he totaled 71 receptions over his three years at Ohio State – but I don't think there's a huge need to force his involvement in the passing game.

The Ravens already want to spread the ball around to tight end Mark Andrews and their big-play wide receivers. Plus, the Ravens don't pass as much as other teams around the league. Jackson is averaging 23.8 passing attempts per game, so there isn't a ton of opportunity for Dobbins as a pass catcher. Plus, Dobbins is sharing the running back duties with Gus Edwards, who is also playing great right now and has even flashed catching passes out of the backfield. I understand the sentiment about wanting to get the ball to Dobbins as much as possible, but he has touchdowns in five straight games and I think the Ravens have settled into a nice workload distribution for him.

Mink: The Ravens reportedly tried to sign Damon “Snacks” Harrison off Seattle's practice squad in late November. They were in a very different place then with Brandon Williams dealing with an ankle injury. Now Williams and Calais Campbell are back, and the Ravens' defensive line is at full strength. Harbaugh spoke this week about his pleasure with the group's depth, including backup nose tackle Justin "Jelly" Ellis. In summary, you don't need Snacks when you already have Jelly.

Downing: Bryant is coming off touchdowns in back-to-back games, so it's understandable that fans are curious about finding more ways to get him involved in the game plan. I do think Bryant's greatest asset to this offense is his ability in the red zone. He can fight for contested catches and has a knack for finding holes in the defense, and that's proven with his 75 career touchdowns. Plus, if the 10-year veteran has lost any of his top-end athleticism at this stage of his career, that is less evident in the short field near the goal-line.

From the time the Ravens signed Bryant to the practice squad midway through the season, there has been a progression with him. He's slowly but surely carved out a bigger role, and now he's establishing himself as a trusted red-zone target for Jackson. Could the Ravens use him more the rest of the way? He's played 17 snaps in each of the last two games, and I wouldn't expect that number to jump to 40-plus snaps a game. The Ravens seem like they want to use Bryant situationally, where he can best use his unique skillset in a limited number of plays. Now one area where I think the Ravens could work in Bryant more is on third downs. They have quality targets over the middle of the field and as a deep threat, but if they need a contested catch outside the numbers on third-and-long, Bryant could be just the guy for the job.

Mink: I'm tempted to just cross this bridge when we get to it next week. The storyline of Lamar needing to win his first playoff game will be a HUGE storyline if the Ravens make it. It will be massively important to win that game for more than just Lamar, but yes, it's also very big for him to get over that early hump. His playoff losses are pretty much the only blemish on his young career. I think once he gets that first one, it's going to be hard to stop him from getting the second, third, etc. I do believe he'll feel the pressure next week. Now he needs to channel it the right way.

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