It’s no fluke that the Bengals have emerged as the AFC North frontunner at 6-3. Cincinnati comes to town with the NFL’s ninth-best offense and fifth-best defense.
Offensively, there’s no shortage of weapons for the Ravens to contend with, as quarterback Andy Dalton leads a unit with plenty of playmakers in both the running and receiving games.
It starts with Dalton, who has passed for 2,587 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, ranking third in the league with 35 completions of at least 20 yards.
“He’s one of the best in the game. His record says it and his numbers say it,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “He’s playing good football right now and inspired football. They’re at the head of the division, so that says something. He’s matured a lot. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a quarterback do that already. But he’s my opponent this week, I don’t want to give him too much praise, but he’s doing a good job.”
At Dalton’s disposal in the passing game are A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham. Green leads the league with 862 receiving yards on 57 catches, including five for touchdowns.
Jones has emerged as a big-play threat with 28 receptions for 435 yards. He’s two weeks removed from a four-touchdown performance. Gresham has added 33 catches for 321 yards. But Green is the premier threat, a player one could describe as the prototypical wide receiver.
“He’s got all the tools. The guy can go up and get the ball,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “He’s strong, physical, fast, can build speed. There’s a lot of big receivers - used to be - sometimes there were big receivers that couldn’t get off the line. (Willie) Gault was one of the fastest guys I’ve ever seen in my life, but if you jam him, that took care of that. These guys aren’t like that anymore. This guy is a great receiver. He’s a great receiver; that’s the only way I can put it.”
Rookie Giovani Bernard is doing it all for the Bengals with 361 rushing yards and four touchdowns to go with 30 catches for 267 yards and two scores. Plus, Cincinnati still has BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading the team with 424 yards on the ground.
So there will be an awful lot of quality threats being thrown at Baltimore’s defense Sunday.
“The Bengals have been extremely talented ever since we’ve been here. They’re always very talented,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve done a great job with the draft. They’ve always got playmakers on both sides of the ball. So that’s an evolution that has been going on. I don’t think they are any more dangerous than they were last year, the year before or the year before that, and they’ve been plenty dangerous. They’ve got playmakers at every single position on offense. Their quarterback is playing well. They’ve always been a mauling offensive line. So that’s what we are dealing with.”
The Bengals defense might be ranked fifth in the league, but it will start to take on a different look this week since defensive tackle Geno Atkins was lost for the season because of a torn ACL. Atkins leads the Bengals with six of their 25 sacks.
Harbaugh isn’t yet sure how Atkins’ absence will affect the Bengals’ defensive front.
“Geno Atkins is a great player. Geno Atkins is really a force in there, and he’s very difficult to block. I’m sure they know that,” Harbaugh said. “But they’ve got other very capable players. They’ve got good players everywhere on their defense, and their defense doesn’t change. Mike Zimmer does an incredible job with his structure. It’s very challenging - it causes you all kinds of problems. They are playing great defense. They are one of the top-ranked defenses in football.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco said it’s a shame to not be going against Atkins, a fixture in the rivalry with the Bengals.
“You don’t want to see guys get hurt to the point where they’re going to be out for an extended period of time,” Flacco said. “We don’t mind playing against the best of the best. It’s just what you’re up against in the NFL. As a player, you don’t ever really want to see that stuff happen to other guys.”
The Ravens will still be up against linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who’s tied for the league lead with 90 tackles, cornerback Adam Jones, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and more.
Baltimore had won four straight against Cincinnati before losing last year’s regular season finale - while resting most of its regulars, to be fair.
Eight of the teams’ 10 meetings since 2008, when Harbaugh took over, have been decided by 10 points or fewer. So the Ravens are prepared for another close one, especially in such an important contest that could pull them back into the division race or perhaps nearly put it away for the Bengals.
“They always play us tough. It’s always a fight with these guys,” Suggs said. “This is the AFC North. We don’t expect it any other way. We’ll be ready, we’ll be prepared, and we’ll have at it on Sunday.”