Don't look now, but Sunday's game could loom quite large

Entering the 2011 season, the three-game stretch that the Ravens find themselves in the middle of right now looked like by far the softest portion of their schedule.

Games against the Seahawks, Bengals and 49ers? No problem.

After all, those three teams finished with a combined 17-29 record in 2010. Before this season began, many thought that if the Ravens could get through their first nine games with a strong record, they should get a chance to pull away from the pack during November.

Things haven't exactly played out that way. After losing to Seattle on Sunday, the Ravens now sit at 6-3 and are tied with Cincinnati for second-place in the AFC North, a half-game back of the Steelers, who are on a bye this week.

Suddenly, this Sunday's game against the 6-3 Bengals turns into a huge division battle. The winners find themselves tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North, while the losers fall a full-game back and suffer a blow in the "division record" tiebreaker.

Adding even more pressure onto Sunday's tilt is that just four days following the Bengals game, the Ravens will host the 49ers, owners of an impressive 8-1 record.

"We're playing a really good football team Sunday," head coach John Harbaugh said. "We're playing a team that we're tied for in the AFC North. (Cincinnati is a) young, aggressive, confident football team coming to our place. So, we've got our hands full. That's where our attention is going to be."

Even though the Bengals have struggled for large stretches over the last few seasons, the Ravens have always had issues against their division rival.

In Harbaugh's tenure as head coach, the Ravens have split their six matchups with Cincinnati, and they've lost three of the last four battles with the Bengals. The overall series win totals are separated by just two games; the Ravens have gone 16-14 against Cincinnati since relocating to Baltimore.

This weekend, the Bengals will bring the NFL's fifth-ranked defense and red-hot rookie quarterback Andy Dalton into Baltimore. Dalton has been very impressive this season, completing over 60 percent of his passes, throwing 14 touchdowns to nine interceptions and showing confidence in the face of pressure.

Harbaugh's team doesn't just need a win this Sunday to hold off Cincinnati in the race for the division title, but also to right the ship coming off last weekend's frustrating loss in Seattle.

A second straight defeat would drop the Ravens to 6-4 and third place in the AFC North, and would leave fans antsy with just six games to go and a matchup with the surging 49ers looming.

A win would calm everyone's nerves for a few days and take a bit of the stress off the Thanksgiving night Harbaugh Bowl.

Don't look now, but suddenly, Sunday's matchup with the once-lowly Bengals now carries a good bit of weight to it.

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