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: 9-6, third in AFC North

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

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

Offense: 24th in NFL, 11th in AFC

Defense: sixth in NFL, fifth in AFC

Synopsis thus far: As we head into the final week of the regular season, this is the kind of matchup the league envisions when it puts the schedule together in the offseason. This game has major playoff implications, as Baltimore fights for the divisional crown and a possible first-round bye, while a win for Cincinnati secures them the sixth and final spot in the race for the Super Bowl. The Bengals are winners of two straight, reviving their postseason hopes which, a few weeks ago, looked awfully dim. These two teams met in Week 11, as Baltimore squeezed out a 31-24 win on a somewhat controversial touchdown ruling with tight end Jermaine Gresham. That memory, plus the thought of a postseason berth, should serve as more than enough motivation this weekend.

Playoff scenario: Cincinnati can clinch a wild card spot with:
1) CIN win or tie
2) NYJ loss or tie + OAK loss or tie
3) NYJ loss or tie + DEN loss or tie

Where they’re strong: There are several things to like about this team, but maybe the most exciting thing is how good the Bengals can be in two-to-three years. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has started his career with a bang, eclipsing the 3,000-yard mark and throwing for 20 touchdowns. Seven of those, mind you, have been caught by fellow rookie A.J. Green. Green, taken fourth overall in this year’s draft, has been sensational, hauling in 63 catches for 1031 yards. Those numbers should make him a top contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year. On defense, the team is still as stingy against the run, allowing 96.9 yards per game. Rey Maualuga is the heart and soul of that unit, while linebacker Thomas Howard leads the team with 94 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles.

Where they’re weak: It’s easy to see the 3,000 yards next to Dalton’s name and wonder how the passing offense could be labeled as the weak unit. But in a passing league that number isn’t what it used to be (as Drew Brees so graciously displayed yesterday). It’s a great first-year mark for Dalton, though, but against the rest of the league the Bengals’ 207 yards a game through the air ranks 20th. Also, when looking at the team’s opponents this season, the Bengals definitely struggle against the Ravens. Three interceptions are tied for the most against an opponent this season and the 59.4 quarterback rating against the purple and black is the lowest of any foe this season.

Overall advantage: One team is fighting to get into the playoffs. The other team is fighting for a home game, a factor it desperately needs to advance far in the playoffs. Put simply, this one is gonna get good. On paper the Ravens seem to be the dominant team, but the stars seem to be aligning for a Cincinnati upset. Baltimore is banged up and will miss receiver Anquan Boldin in the passing game. It’s also in Cincinnati, where the fans and players are determined not to make this the last game of the season. I like the Bengals in this one, but it’ll be close.