Well, here we go.
Two division rivals squaring off in Week 17 with serious playoff implications on the line. Just the way the NFL wants it.
We're all well aware of the stakes. If the Bengals take care of business at home, they'll secure the final Wild Card spot in the AFC. If the Ravens can pick up a big road win, they'll lock up a division title, first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. It's the final week of the regular season, but players and coaches are saying that the postseason starts Sunday in their minds.
Here's how these two teams match up going into this weekend's game:
Ravens: 338.1 yards per game (15th)
Bengals: 318.8 yards per game (24th)
Ravens: 118.3 ypg (14th)
Bengals: 111.5 ypg (18th)
Ravens: 219.8 ypg (18th)
Bengals: 207.3 ypg (20th)
Ravens: 285.7 ypg (3rd)
Bengals: 314.2 ypg (6th)
Ravens: 91.8 ypg (2nd)
Bengals: 96.9 ypg (5th)
Ravens: 193.9 ypg (4th)
Bengals: 217.3 ypg (12th)
Ravens: +1 (t-14th)
Bengals: +1 (t-14th)
Looking at the numbers, you can tell these squads are pretty evenly matched. The Ravens have moved the ball a little more efficiently on offense than Cincinnati this season and Baltimore's defense is a shade stingier, but overall, the stats show just what you might think - that these two teams should give us a pretty entertaining football game.
Cincinnati's offense won't exactly scare the opposition, but they've got some guys who could give the Ravens fits. It starts with running back Cedric Benson, a guy who burned Baltimore in 2009 by recording at least 117 rushing yards and a touchdown in both matchups between these division rivals. Benson only has three 100-plus-yard games this season, but he's a dangerous back whose patient running style is hard to defend.
Then, there's the rookie duo of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. If teams start to key too much on Benson, Dalton (the second-round pick out of TCU) can just chuck it up for Green (Cinci's first-round pick out of Georgia), who is one of toughest receivers to defend down the field because of his size, speed and leaping ability. Green missed the first match-up against the Ravens because of a knee injury, but he'll team up with fellow wide receiver Jerome Simpson (he of the acrobatic leaping touchdown a week ago) and tight end Jermaine Gresham on Sunday.
Dalton, meanwhile, is smart, takes care of the football and isn't easily rattled. He's only been sacked 24 times this year, thanks in part to the top-notch play of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who Ravens players say is one of the most underrated offensive tackles in the game.
Defensively, Cincinnati plays a tough, physical 4-3 front, and while they've got a solid unit overall, they do their best work on third downs. The Bengals have the league's best three-and-out percentage (30.7 percent) and also have tallied the NFL's third-most sacks this season (44). A whopping 15 Bengals players have recorded a sack this year, tied for most in the NFL, but the top guy to watch up front is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has eight sacks in 2011.
The location of this game obviously won't make things any easier on the Ravens. We all know they've lost four of their seven road games this season, but they've also dropped five of their last six contests at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals will be playing in front of a sold-out crowd for just the second time this season (the fact that they're 9-6 and have only recorded two sell-outs amazes me), which should give what's normally a barren stadium a postseason-like feel.
All that just leads me to believe that the Bengals will take home a win on Sunday. I wouldn't at all be surprised if an inspired Ravens team got the job done, but I just don't trust them on the road. I'm taking Cincinnati in this one, 24-20.
What about you? Do you see the Ravens taking care of business on the road with the division title on the line? Or will the Bengals hold off their division counterparts and lock up that final AFC playoff spot?
Who you got?