(Sports Network) - When the Baltimore Ravens wrap up a successful 2010 regular season by hosting the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday, they'll be keeping their fingers crossed that the game won't be the final one to be played at M&T Bank Stadium of this campaign.
While Baltimore is certain to be competing at least one more time following its Week 17 clash with the Bengals, having already secured entry in the AFC Playoffs, that next outing -- and possibly any subsequent ones as well -- would take place on the road if things stay true to form on Sunday. Although the Ravens are presently tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North, the Steelers own a tiebreaker edge over their fierce rivals because of a superior record in division play.
If Pittsburgh wins at slumping Cleveland on Sunday or Baltimore loses to Cincinnati, the Steelers would seize both the AFC North title and the all- important No. 2 seed in the conference. Either of those results would send the Ravens into next week's Wild Card Round as a fifth seed forced to travel to a division champion, with Indianapolis, Kansas City or Jacksonville the possible destinations.
However, a Baltimore victory over the Bengals and Steelers loss to the Browns would give the Ravens the second overall spot, an opening-round bye week plus a guaranteed home date in the Divisional Round.
That scenario would clearly be a huge advantage for Baltimore, which is 6-1 at M&T Bank Stadium this season and has won nine of its past 10 home tilts dating back to last year.
The Ravens are in their current predicament because of a 15-10 division loss at Cincinnati in Week 2, one of a mere four wins for the thoroughly disappointing Bengals in 2010.
The defending AFC North champion Bengals have been a tough opponent as of late, however, entering the finale on the strength of back-to-back triumphs capped by a 34-20 upset of playoff-hopeful San Diego this past Sunday.
Quarterback Carson Palmer put forth his best performance of the season to spark Cincinnati, with the two-time Pro Bowl participant completing a razor-sharp 16- of-21 throws for 269 yards and four touchdowns despite the absence of top receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
Seldom-used wideouts Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell showed themselves to be more than capable fill-ins for their high-profile counterparts, with the duo combining for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 10 receptions.
Owens sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Bengals' 19-17 decision over Cleveland in Week 15, while Ochocinco is considered highly questionable to play on Sunday due to a bone spur in his left ankle.
Baltimore is also riding some late-season momentum, having won three straight and five of its last six tests. The Ravens extended the streak with a 20-10 road verdict over the Browns last week.
Quarterback Joe Flacco tossed a pair of touchdown passes to help Baltimore to its most recent win, but endured a rough afternoon in the team's earlier tussle with Cincinnati. The third-year pro was intercepted four times by the Bengals and connected on just 17-of-39 attempts for 154 yards.
Baltimore holds a 15-14 edge in its all-time series with Cincinnati, but the Bengals have prevailed in each of the last three meetings between the clubs. In addition to the previously-noted 15-10 win in Week 2, Cincinnati posted a 17-14 decision over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium last season and completed the sweep with a 17-7 home verdict during Week 9 of the 2009 campaign. The Ravens took both matchups in the 2008 set, including a 17-10 victory in Baltimore.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 9-6 against the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001. Baltimore's John Harbaugh is 2-3 against both Lewis and the Bengals as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
A Cincinnati offense that's been wildly inconsistent over the course of the season has gotten big efforts from two of its most important players in the past couple of weeks. Palmer (3665 passing yards, 25 TD, 18 INT) posted a career-best quarterback rating with his shredding of a well-regarded San Diego secondary last Sunday, while running back Cedric Benson (1058 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 8 total TD) powered his way to a season-high 150 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries to key the team's Week 15 win over Cleveland. Those types of displays haven't been the norm for the Bengals, however, as the club is averaging a league-worst 3.6 yards per rush attempt and committed 29 turnovers for the year, though it's done a better job of taking care of the ball lately. Simpson (8 receptions, 2 TD) broke out for 124 yards and two scores on six catches against the Chargers, with Caldwell (18 receptions) adding 87 yards on four grabs as both reserves made the most of their opportunities. With Ochocinco's (67 receptions, 4 TD) status in doubt, the tandem figures to once again serve as Palmer's primary targets with support from a pair of promising rookies, tight end Jermaine Gresham (52 receptions, 4 TD) and slot receiver Jordan Shipley (50 receptions, 3 TD).
Palmer and his mates will be attempting to navigate an excellent Baltimore defense that's yielded the third-fewest points in the NFL (17.5 ppg) and had four players -- lineman Haloti Ngata, inside linebacker Ray Lewis, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and free safety Ed Reed -- named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster on Tuesday. Reed (35 tackles, 6 INT, 13 PD) proved his worth with a standout showing against Cleveland last week, with the proven playmaker coming up with two of the team's three interceptions of Browns rookie Colt McCoy, and his presence is a big reason why the Ravens rank fourth in the league in pass efficiency defense. Baltimore is rather stout against the run as well, with the legendary Lewis (128 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and the 350-pound Ngata (62 tackles, 5.5 sacks) anchoring a group that's surrendering just 94.2 rushing yards per game (4th overall) and held Cleveland power back Peyton Hillis to a harmless 35 yards on 12 attempts this past Sunday. Suggs (65 tackles, 11 sacks) is a pass-rushing terror who's registered at least one sack in six of the past eight games.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens were one of the league's most productive and persistent running teams during the first two years of Harbaugh's tenure, and it seems as if they've returned to their roots for the stretch run. Top back Ray Rice (1143 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 5 total TD) delivered a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on 31 totes in a critical home win over New Orleans two weeks back, and Baltimore churned out 161 yards on the ground in a ball-control game plan against the Browns last Sunday. Flacco (3497 passing yards, 25 TD, 9 INT) attempted just 19 passes in the Cleveland game and 20 versus the Saints, and considering the 2008 first-round pick's career struggles against Cincinnati (4 TD, 8 INT in five games), he could be in line for a reduced role again on Sunday. He's been very solid over the season's second half, however, compiling an impressive 20-to-3 touchdowns-to-interception ratio since Week 6, and will have at least three accomplished options to turn to in Rice, one of the game's better receiving backs, and the veteran wideout combo of Anquan Boldin (62 receptions, 7 TD) and Derrick Mason (58 receptions, 7 TD). Tight end Todd Heap (37 receptions, 5 TD) also falls into the reliable category, but his questionable for the finale due to a hamstring sideline that's sidelined him two straight weeks.
Cincinnati did a terrific job of containing Flacco in the first meeting, but its defense has been spotty overall when playing the pass during this lackluster season. The team does sport two very good cornerbacks in Leon Hall (43 tackles, 4 INT, 10 PD) and Johnathan Joseph (39 tackles, 3 INT), however, and rookie end Carlos Dunlap (20 tackles, 8 sacks) has provided a huge lift to a pass rush that's been non-existent for much of the year. The second-round draft choice has racked up seven sacks over the past five games. The Bengals have also turned it up a notch against the run lately, holding both Cleveland and San Diego under 65 rushing yards in their two December wins. Outside linebackers Rey Maualuga (70 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Keith Rivers (72 tackles, 1 sack) have led the recent charge, while the midseason insertion of young tackle Pat Sims (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) into a starting capacity has helped shore up that area as well.
The possibility exists that Harbaugh will play it safe here, since the Ravens may end up locked into the AFC's fifth seed regardless of Sunday's outcome, but early indications are that Baltimore will have its regulars out on the field at least most of the way. Rice could yield some touches to capable backup Willis McGahee (375 rushing yards, 13 receptions, 6 total TD) in an attempt to freshen up for the playoffs, but the Ravens' run-oriented approach has the potential to limit the upside of both Boldin and Mason. Flacco may be a risky play as well, but the Ravens defense remains a recommended choice. There isn't much that stands out among the Cincinnati ranks, as Palmer and Benson have been up-and- down performers throughout the year and the receivers are relatively unproven, though Caldwell has more of a track record than Simpson. Keep an eye on the kickers, as Baltimore's Billy Cundiff is 24-for-27 on three-point tries while making the Pro Bowl and the Bengals got five field goals from the now-injured Mike Nugent in its Week 2 win over the Ravens.
Cincinnati has finally been playing up to its talent level lately and has had success against the Ravens in the past, so don't expect Baltimore to have an easy time in spite of the wide differential in wins between these two teams. Still, the Ravens always seem to give their best effort at home and have more to play for than the going-nowhere Bengals, who probably can't wait to close the books on a forgettable season. Last week's result showed Cincinnati is good enough to mount a reasonable threat, but there's still not much supporting evidence to suggest the Bengals can go into one of the league's toughest venues and come away with a win as they're presently constructed.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Bengals 17