Five thoughts on the Ravens' 19-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Four Reasons Ravens' Win Was Massively Important
This was the game I circled when the NFL schedule came out months ago. The Ravens hadn't beaten Cincinnati since Nov. 10, 2013, losing five games in a row to their divisional rivals. If they were going to regain any of the altitude they'd lost in the AFC North, they had to beat the Bengals, especially at home. Baltimore's must-win imperative became even more pronounced when the Bengals showed up Sunday with key players out and their season falling apart. The Ravens simply had to win, so really, the only thing that matters is they did. No, it wasn't pretty. After taking a 10-0 lead, the Ravens failed to reach the end zone again and failed to put away a team on the brink, forcing the defense to hold on at the end. "We're not going to survive" playing that way, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said, but on this day, it was enough to deliver a win that was hugely important because: a) it kept them in first place in the AFC North, b) it gave them a 4-0 record in divisional games, which could become crucial if tiebreakers end up mattering c) it meant they'd surpassed their win total for 2015, a tangible sign of improvement, and d) it was against the Bengals, who had eaten four Thanksgiving dinners since they last lost to Baltimore. I mean, enough already.
Time To Stop Treating Tucker Like A 'Typical Kicker'
There was a lot of postgame yuk-yuk about kicker Justin Tucker having a high opinion of himself, and Flacco had the best line by far, saying Tucker* *has "earned the right to feel the way he feels about himself." Terrell Suggs also had a good line, saying he'd chided Tucker for being a kicker with the gall to make contract demands when he was on the precipice of free agency last summer. My two cents? I think it's about time for everyone to stop treating Tucker like a typical kicker, i.e., a little guy who plays a couple of snaps and then lets the big boys decide who wins. Tucker is a lethal scoring weapon and the Ravens treat him as such. Flacco admitted Sunday that the offense's mindset changed after Tucker booted three field goals of 50-plus yards in the first half. Just get a couple of first downs, the thinking went, and points were guaranteed. Believe me, other teams don't think that way, especially the Bengals, whose kicker missed his fourth-straight extra point Sunday. Yes, you read that right.
While It Improved, Nobody Can Sugarcoat Offense's Performance
How do we sum up the offense's performance? Not with a broad brush, that's for sure. Some good things happened, no doubt. Penalties were down significantly, minimizing a major issue from prior defeats. The line played perhaps its best game of the season against a tough defense, giving Flacco solid pass protection and opening holes on running plays. Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon both ran hard, piled up yards after contact and ended with 144 combined rushing and receiving yards. Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg didn't abandon the run. Those are all things fans have longed to see. "I know the offense is improved," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. Still, no one in the locker room was sugarcoating what happened on that side of the ball. Yet again, the Ravens started fast but pretty much came to a halt. "I mean, you can feel it," Flacco said of the momentum waning. Indeed, you can. So what happened? Well, the Ravens went 0-for-6 on third downs in the second half. Quite simply, they stopped making the plays they'd made earlier. It's called* *inconsistency, an issue the Ravens offense is still battling.
Green Was Missing, But Defense Still Deserves Credit
The Bengals were without their biggest offensive weapon, A.J. Green, but the Ravens also dealt with a major absence when their top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, missed his second-straight game due to a bad back. Until Sunday, Smith's absence has amounted to a death knell for the Ravens, with Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant torching them, but the secondary held up better this time. Yes, Green's absence was obviously a factor; the Bengals really missed him, especially late, when he has repeatedly broken the Ravens' hearts with big plays. But the Ravens defense deserves kudos. "Man, those guys were ballin'," Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said.
Indeed, while the Bengals did move the ball, their running game was tepid and their passing game never came close to producing a big play. Tavon Young, the Ravens' rookie cornerback, continues to impress with his gutsy play; he might be the team's biggest surprise of 2016. The offense's sputtering left the defense in a precarious situation, with little margin for error; one lapse, leading to a big play, could lose the game. But that play never came.
Quick HitsFor most of the game, the Ravens gave their cleanest penalty performance of the year, totaling just two flags in the first three quarters—quite a turnaround from Dallas. The fourth quarter wasn't as clean, as the Ravens accumulated four flags, which helped the Bengals mount a rally … Terrell Suggs had quite the all-around day, contributing three tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, two quarterback hits, one pass defended and one tackle for loss. All with a torn bicep, of course … The Bengals are now 2½ games behind the first-place Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers with five to play, so it's pretty much down a two-team race.
Check out all the best photos from M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens host the Bengals in an AFC North showdown.