*The Ravens are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (1:00 p.m. ET). *
*BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's next opponent. *
Total Offense - 32 (239.5) Total Defense - 21 (340.1)
Rush Offense - 31 (80.0) Rush Defense - 24 (130.2)
Pass Offense - 30 (159.5) Pass Defense -15 (209.9)
Points Per Game - 31 (13.5) Points Per Game - 25 (25.1)
Sizing Them Up
The Bengals are the only AFC team currently eliminated from the playoffs, but that doesn't mean Baltimore can overlook their division rival. Cincinnati, 1-9-1, is coming off a 10-day break after losing 27-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Thursday night at Heinz Field, but the team has been solid lately at its home of Paul Brown Stadium.
Their last two home games have ended up in a 13-13 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and a 21-19 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
These clubs first met in the 2008 season opener, which the Ravens took 17-10. But, things have changed in Cincy, most notable at the quarterback position. Pro Bowler Carson Palmer has not played since Oct. 5 with a shoulder injury, and he likely won't be back this weekend. That means former Harvard signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick has taken the reins since then. Fitzpatrick has thrown six touchdowns and seven interceptions and owns a 70.2 passer rating.
Another difference in the backfield is with running back Cedric Benson being promoted to the first-string instead of original starter Chris Perry.
But where the Bengals really hurt other teams is through the air. Fitzpatrick has a pair of stellar wideouts, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Ocho Cinco (Johnson). Both are annual threats to receive 100 balls. Each has four touchdown catches this year, while Houshmandzadeh is third in the NFL with 77 grabs. Johnson was deactivated last week for violating team rules.
Cincinnati's third receiver, Chris Henry, is another top talent that has burned the Ravens in the past.
Defensively, the banged-up unit recently put starting defensive end Robert Geather and backup Frostee Rucker on Injured Reserve, joining starting cornerback Johnathan Joesph and linebacker Keith Rivers, a 2008 first-round draft pick out of USC. The unit is led by talented defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who spent last year in Atlanta and seven seasons with the Cowboys before that.
My counterpart, Geoff Hobson, of Bengals.com has an excellent article about Willie Anderson's return to Paul Brown Stadium, where the four-time Pro Bowl tackle spent 12 of his 13 years in the league.
"The emotions are mixed and many for Willie Anderson. But for the greatest right tackle in Bengals history, they won't begin to cascade until the Ravens land in Cincinnati on Saturday in preparation for Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium. The place where Anderson went to four straight Pro Bowls and played half of his 116 straight games in becoming the rock of a franchise."*
Cincy got even more bad news late in the week, as starting guard Andrew Whitworth was placed on Injured Reserve, writes Mark Curnutte of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"They are the 14th and 15th players on the IR list now for the Bengals."**
Chick Ludwig of the Springfield News-Sun provides this enlightening look at Carson Palmer's recovery from his elbow injury.
*"Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has targeted Dec. 7 as the day he'll start throwing again but said surgery on his right elbow remains a possibility because the ligament and tendon are detached from the bone."
Offensive - When you're the last-ranked offense in the league, it's tough to pick an MVP, but Houshmandzadeh continues to produce, no matter who's throwing the football. His 77 catches are third in the league, and his 746 yards means he will be knocking on the door of his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Defensive - Linebacker Dhani Jones, who was signed two games into the 2007 campaign, has 100 tackles on the season, which leads the team. And, he is third in Cincinnati with eight passes defensed. Jones was voted a captain this year, and it's shown on the field, as he owns three 15-stop games and a 13-tackle effort the "mike" position.
It might be an overstatement to call him a star, but rookie left tackle Anthony Collins, a fourth-round draft pick out of Kansas, was solid last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was Collins' first start, and he drew the unfortunate assignment of Steelers pass-rushing nightmare James Harrison. But, Pittsburgh was held to only one sack, which came from linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Ravens CBs Fabian Washington and Samari Rolle vs. Bengals WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Ocho Cinco
With Chris McAlister on IR with a knee injury, Rolle and Washington are charged with taking on this playmaking duo. Rolle has regularly seen this duo in the past, playing in the AFC North, but Washington, an offseason addition, has only faced Cincinnati once before. Washington missed the Week 1 matchup while he served a one-game suspension for violating the league's conduct policy. In the past, the Ravens have has success getting physical with both Houshmandzadeh and Ocho Cinco.
Ravens RDT Trevor Pryce vs. Bengals LG Nate Livings
Livings, a first-year player, spent games 1-10 on the Bengals' practice squad, made his first professional start last week. At 6-foot-5, 335 pounds, he has good size and performed admirably against the Steelers. He'll have his hands full with Pryce, who has 12 years in the league and is rounding into top form with 3.5 sacks in his last four contests. Pryce is currently tied with linebacker Jarret Johnson for the Ravens' lead with 4.5 sacks.
Marvin Lewis on seeing former Bengal and current Ravens tackle Willie Anderson on the opposite sideline:
"Well, it will be strange but I'm very happy for Willie. Willie is an extremely hard worker; he's meant a lot to this organization and a lot to me. I'm very glad that he's getting an opportunity to play again. He's playing on a team right now that's winning, and that's all that Willie has strived for his entire career is a chance to play on a winning football team and contribute to a winning football team, and he's doing that again."
T.J. Houshmandzadeh on how he feels Bengals backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has played:"I think 'Fitz' has gotten better each game. A quarterback is only as good as his offensive line and the guys around him, but I think he's gotten better each week. Getting thrown out there, I think it was the Cleveland game was his first game, and not being able to practice, I think he's just gotten better. If the offensive line plays well then we can run the ball, and [if] me and Chad [Ocho Cinco] get out there and make some plays, obviously, you're going to play better. And that's any position, any position in football. If everybody's not playing well, nobody's going to do anything. I think 'Fitz' is getting better, and I'm just hoping he'll have his best game this week."
On paper, this game should go to the Ravens.
You have Carson Palmer's hurt elbow, Chad Ocho Cinco constantly creating turmoil in the locker room and an offensive line and entire defense absolutely riddled with injuries.
But if it were simply a matter of looking at a piece of paper, there would be no need to travel to Paul Brown Stadium.
That's why they play the games.
The Bengals are always good for a fight against Baltimore, especially in front of a fired-up home crowd. And, the Ravens haven't swept this AFC North series since 2002 and haven't won at Cincinnati since 2004. Not exactly a friendly welcome.
In order to take this one and improve to 8-4 to hang close to the Steelers for a piece of the division lead, Baltimore must take advantage of what they're given.
Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce, along with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will have to dominate the left side of the Bengals' offensive line, which will have a rookie and a former practice-squadder protecting Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Quarterback Joe Flacco will be facing a Bengals secondary that has been in flux all season. Regular starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph was just relegated to Injured Reserve, while Cincinnati could start anyone from Chinedum Ndukwe (questionable with a foot injury), Chris Crocker (who was signed in the middle of the year), or Marvin White at safety. The unit also lost first-string safety Dexter Jackson earlier in the year to a hamstring injury.
And the Bengals will be missing two of their top defensive ends, which would have been critical in putting pressure on Flacco in the pocket.
There are favorable matchups, but the Ravens need to recognize them early and then clamp down in the second half like they have over their last five wins, when Baltimore outscored opponents 84-23 in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens admitted it this week - the team knows it's in the hunt. But, in order to stay there, the Ravens must maintain their focus on the next game, no matter what the paper says.
*Ed. note: These aren't necessarily the beliefs of the Ravens organization.
VOTE for your favorite Ravens in the Pro Bowl 2009 ballot.*