The oddity of facing the Bengals in back-to-back games has impacted the Ravens' preparation this week.
The Ravens didn't dive deep into their playbook in Week 18, knowing there was a possibility they could face the Bengals again one week later. Now it's playoff time, and everything is on the table for Sunday night's rematch. Both teams will be ready to unveil plays, formations, and strategies that they didn't use in Week 18. The teams will be the same, but the game could be very different.
"Did they empty all their stuff against us, did we empty all the stuff against them?" Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said. "It's just very unique to go back-to-back weeks against a team. Generally speaking, the second game's a lot different than the first."
The Ravens are hoping for a different outcome after losing 27-16 in Week 18. Trying to throw Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow off his rhythm will be one of Baltimore's primary goals, and Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald is known for using multiple packages and formations under normal circumstances.
In this situation, facing Burrow for the second time in two weeks with the season on the line, Macdonald could become even more creative than usual.
"Never played anybody back-to-back before, so that process is unique," Macdonald said. "We definitely have a strategy involved on how we wanted to play the game (Week 18), with the realistic possibility of playing it again."
While the Bengals will have different things in store, Macdonald said the defense could benefit from having recent snaps against the Bengals' offense.
"All their guys did play, it's not like they weren't playing their guys," Macdonald said. "Just to see how fast the ball comes out, how he moves in the pocket. How they're blocking certain things."
Ravens safety Chuck Clark, one of the NFL's best at film study, anticipates the Bengals may put different twists on plays, while using some of the same formations they showed last week.
"Be ready for anything," Clark said. "It might look the same. It might feel the same, but it ain't."
Rookies Look Forward to First Playoff Game
Rookies could play a key role in Sunday's outcome, including safety Kyle Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum, tight end Isaiah Likely and punter Jordan Stout. Hamilton said several vets have advised him to ignore all the hype surrounding the game.
"Block out all the noise," Hamilton said. "It's win or go home at the end of the day. There's not much that needs to be said about that. I think we're all pretty locked in. Just go play free. Leave everything on the line, everything out there."
Linderbaum has been Baltimore's starting center since Day 1 and has more than met expectations as a first-round pick. He's looking forward to seeing what the postseason's all about.
"This is what we've prepared for," Linderbaum said. "Seventeen games leading up to this moment. This is what we live for. This is why we play the game, to be in game like this, to be in the playoffs. We're excited for the opportunity to get another shot at this team."
Anthony Brown Got Valuable Reps Against Bengals in Week 18
There's a possibility that undrafted rookie Anthony Brown could get his second career start, with Tyler Huntley (throwing shoulder/wrist) limited again in Thursday's practice and Lamar Jackson (knee) missing his 17th straight practice. Brown threw two interceptions in Week 18, but also completed 19 of his 44 passes for 286 yards and made some nice throws after settling down.
"He was very productive once he settled in," Roman said. "For him, that's priceless experience. You could go to practice all day and it's just not the same. I thought he did pretty darn good once he got settled into a 60-minute game. Some of those mistakes early really cost us, but loved how he hung in there, played mentally tough, battled back. We've got to clean up some things and we're right there."
Eliminating turnovers will be a key to Baltimore's success. In addition to throwing two interceptions, Brown lost a fumble that the Bengals recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, and wide receiver Sammy Watkins lost a fumble.
"You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to have a chance to win the game," Roman said. "I could point out some stuff that happened in the red zone that if we just do it right, we're talking a close game, even with all those turnovers. We've got to play a smarter game."
Ravens Will Tweak Game Plan Depending on Which Quarterback Plays
The uncertainty about which quarterback will play for Baltimore also adds uncertainty to the offensive game plan. However, Roman said the adjustments don't have to be drastic.
"You're definitely going to lean one way or another on some calls for sure, but you don't want to have two gameplans going because everybody else has to learn them, too," Roman said. "So, you kind of build a gameplan where you can lean this way or that way based on each guy.
"It just comes with the territory. We're not the first team to have to deal with that. You don't blink, you just keep going, and you try to adjust as you go. It's been a very fluid situation, and it probably will be up until game time, but you really don't even pay attention to it. It's next man up and you coach who's there and away we go."