A closer look at the Bengals

Every Tuesday we’ll take a closer look at the Ravens’ next opponent. This week it’s the Cincinnati Bengals.

Record: (6-3, second in AFC North)

Wins: @ Cleveland, vs. Buffalo, @ Jacksonville, vs. Indianapolis, @ Seattle, @ Tennessee

Losses: @ Denver, vs. San Francisco, vs. Pittsburgh

Offense: 24th in NFL, 12th in AFC

Defense: 4-3 scheme: fifth in NFL, fifth in AFC

Synopsis thus far: While the 49ers continue to take the NFC by surprise, over in the AFC that honor has to belong to the Bengals. Entering the season, expectations outside of Cincinnati were mediocre at best, but rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has shown great maturity in only nine games, fellow rookie A.J. Green is already climbing the mountain of great receivers and the defense is among the top five in both the conference and league. Schedule wise, their wins are less than impressive, but they’ve beaten all three of the teams the Ravens haven’t. This young team still needs its statement win against a tough team, and what better time than earning a road win over a divisional foe to prove their worth?

Where they’re strong: Statistically, the offensive numbers aren’t anything to post on the family refrigerator, but considering Dalton has only nine career starts and a young offensive line in front of him, it’s hard not to be impressed. Dalton is 134 yards shy of 2,000 and has thrown 14 touchdowns, six to Green, his favorite target. Defensively, though, this unit really shines. The Bengals are second in the league against the run, allowing 86.8 yards per game. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has emerged as the leader the Bengals were hoping he’d be when they took him in the second round back in 2009, while safety Reggie Nelson leads the team with 55 tackles and a defensive score.

Where they’re weak: Despite the progression of Dalton, the offense is clearly their weaker link. Dalton’s completion percentage is respectable at 60 percent, but the Bengals accumulate less than 200 yards per game through the air, while running back Cedric Benson, though without a fumble this season, has only two rushing touchdowns and just 3.9 yards per carry.

Matchup to watch: You can’t say enough about Green, who has to be battling his quarterback for rookie of the year honors. Taken with the fourth overall pick in last April’s draft, Green’s six touchdowns are sixth in the NFL, and his double digit average on yards per reception ranks among the best in the league at 15.5. He’s scored touchdowns in four of his last five games, but he’ll be spied on by one of the game’s great safeties in Ed Reed, not to mention covered by Lardarius Webb. Webb had a good game against the Seahawks and, with the help of Reed over the top, should put Green’s youthful burst to the test.

Overall advantage: If I were a betting man (which I’m not), I’d stay far away from this game. Both teams are 6-3, but Cincinnati’s is still relatively unimpressive, while Baltimore’s is downright strange. This is a big game in terms of the divisional race, which leads me to believe the Ravens will shine, particularly at home. But with several let down performances this season, it’s not out of the question for the Bengals to pull off the upset. For now, I’ll take the Ravens, who should give Dalton a tough time in a hostile environment.