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Late for Work 7/21: Pundits Debate Whether Ravens Are Bengals' Biggest Threat in AFC North

S Kyle Hamilton
S Kyle Hamilton

Pundits Debate Whether Ravens Are Bengals' Biggest Threat in AFC North

The Cincinnati Bengals are favored to do something this season that has never been done in the history of the AFC North: win the division title three years in a row.

The Athletic's AFC North beat writers were asked if they would take the Bengals or the field to capture the division crown, and which team has the best chance to dethrone Cincinnati.

"I'll take the field, and that's hardly a reflection of my thoughts on the Bengals, whom I could see winning the Super Bowl this year," Ravens writer Jeff Zrebiec wrote. "It's more a testament to how good the rest of the division is and just how hard it is to stay on top year after year when you account for injuries, first-place schedules and other factors.

"To me, the Ravens would probably be the best bet to dethrone the Bengals. In 2021, the Ravens entered December in first place in the AFC North with an 8-3 record and then [Lamar] Jackson went down. Last year, the Ravens were 8-4 and tied with the Bengals when Jackson sustained a season-ending injury. A healthy Jackson doesn't necessarily mean the Ravens will dethrone the Bengals, but he gives them the best chance."

Browns reporter Zac Jackson expressed a similar opinion.

"I absolutely think the Bengals are the best team from quarterback to coaching staff to both-sides playmakers, but I also think that any of the other three teams could legitimately win the division," Jackson wrote. "In a Bengals versus the field, I'd take the field with the thought that some other quarterback gets hot and some other team peaks in December the way the Bengals have over the last two seasons. But asking me to pick which one complicates things. I'd hesitantly pick the Ravens."

Bengals writer Paul Dehner Jr. also took the field, but he pegged a different team to be Cincinnati's top challenger.

"My personal splitting of the AFC North title pie would be Bengals at 35 percent, Steelers 25 percent, Ravens 22 percent, Browns 18 percent." Dehner wrote. "I don't know if Kenny Pickett will ever touch the level the other three quarterbacks have in this league, but his potential Year 2 bump, momentum from the end of last season and a quietly impressive offseason of solid additions make me think Pittsburgh has a push in them."

Steelers writer Mark Kaboly was the most bullish on the Bengals.

"The Bengals are far and away the favorite to do a three-peat in the division, and I don't know if any of the other three teams are close," Kaboly wrote. "Each of the others has its flaws — all could end up winning 10 games or even losing 10 games. If I had to pick a No. 2 right now, it would be the Ravens based on Jackson. With his contract situation cleared up and the best group of receivers of his career, the offense is going to be hard to stop. They just have to avoid yet another late-season collapse because that's when I think the Steelers are going to make a run for things with their young team."

Will Diminishing Role of Special Teams Affect Ravens' Roster Decisions?

Considering John Harbaugh's background as a special teams coach, it's no surprise the Ravens have excelled in special teams during his tenure as head coach. However, with new rules aimed at improving player safety reducing the importance of kick and punt coverage and blocking units, will the Ravens alter their approach regarding roster composition?

Baltimore Beatdown’s Vasilis Lericos contends that Baltimore should.

"Of course, special teams are still important," Lericos wrote. "Kickers, punters and even long snappers can determine the winner when contenders match up to battle. Nonetheless, the value of core special teamers who do not contribute significantly on offense or defense has never been lower. There are now fewer plays where blocking for or covering a return is necessary. These factors should put the roster spots dedicated to special teams only contributors in the crosshairs.

"Geno Stone, Malik Harrison, Trenton Simpson, Brandon Stephens, Justice Hill, Patrick Ricard, Devin Duvernay, Isaiah Likely, and Charlie Kolar offer Special Teams Coordinator Chris Horton enough options to field top-notch kick coverage and return blocking units without additional core special teams only contributors. Every roster spot saved on special teams will allow Baltimore to carry an additional rotational role player, depth veteran, or developmental prospect at running back, offensive line, defensive line and defensive back."

Rashod Bateman Tabbed As Ravens' Most Likely Breakout Player

There's been a lot of buzz lately surrounding first-round wide receiver Zay Flowers and his potential to make a significant impact in his rookie season. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman is beginning to generate some buzz as well.

It was noted in Late for Work last week that Bateman was named one of three young wide receivers who have the best chance of taking their game to new heights in 2023 in's survey of a handful of NFL executives and high-ranking scouts. Now, Bateman has been selected as the Ravens' most likely player to have a breakout season by CBS Sports’ Jared Dubin.

"These are famous last words, but if he can just manage to stay healthy, he has a chance to explode as Lamar Jackson's No. 1 receiver in new Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken's offense," Dubin wrote.

Injuries have limited Bateman to 18 games over his first two seasons, but the 2021 first-round pick has shown glimpses of his playmaking ability when healthy. In his first three games last year, Bateman had eight catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns.

What Are the Chances of Jackson Surpassing Joe Flacco as Ravens' All-Time Passing Leader?

SB Nation’s James Dator looked at every team's starting quarterback and assessed what their chances are of becoming their franchise's all-time passing leader. He gave Jackson (12,209 yards) a 55-percent chance of surpassing Joe Flacco (38,245).

"This is a really curious one," Dator wrote. "Every fiber of my being believes that Jackson is the vastly superior QB, but his game doesn't lend itself to racking up 5,000-yard passing seasons. Right now he would need 13 total seasons at his current pace to break Flacco's total. That's a long time in one place for a dual-threat QB. We have to be conservative with this one."

Jackson's single-season high is 3,127 passing yards in 2019. Flacco surpassed that number eight times in 11 seasons in Baltimore, falling short of the mark only in his rookie year and the two seasons in which he missed significant time due to injuries.

Jackson would make up a lot of ground on Flacco this season if he attains the passing-yardage mark he (perhaps facetiously) set for himself.

"I want to throw for like 6,000 yards with the weapons we have," Jackson said in May.

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