Red zone efficiency key to victory against Ravens

The Bengals are still looking for their statement win of the season. True, they’re 6-3 and just a half-game out of first place in the AFC North. But with a loss to the Steelers last week and a brutal remaining schedule, it’s over the next month when we’ll find out just how legitimate this young Cincinnati team is.

Of course, the Bengals’ first test comes in a huge road game against Baltimore, coincidentally tied with Cincinnati for second place. Recently, however, the Bengals have had the Ravens’ number, winning three of the last four against the purple and black. Yet it’s the Ravens who have gone on to make the playoffs each time, while the Bengals are left to wonder how they can improve.

Sunday’s game figures to be a defensive battle. Both Baltimore and Cincinnati are among the top five in the league in total defense, meaning early points, or points at all, will go a long way in determining who takes a step forward in a competitive AFC North.

And for the Bengals, that means more trips to the red zone. As the Cincinnati Enquirer discovered, the Bengals have a knack for turning red zone visits into touchdowns -- they come away with seven points 53.8 percent of the time -- but getting into the red zone is still a point of emphasis. Their 26 red zone possessions are tied for 20th in the league and they’ll have to face a Ravens defense which has allowed only 25 red zone trips all season, with touchdowns coming at a premium of just 36 percent.

Oddly enough, Cincinnati’s red zone defense mirrors that of its offense. Entering Sunday, the Bengals rank first in the league, allowing only 22 red zone possessions. Yet, once an opponent is in the red zone, its chances of scoring a touchdown are encouraging. The Bengals have allowed 13 touchdowns in those 22 opportunities, 25th in the league.

With points likely as rare as a snow day in Phoenix, the chances of a Bengals win could come down to which unit reverses the trend. But against the vaunted Ravens defense, that’s certainly easier said than done.