During his post-practice session with reporters following Friday afternoon's workout, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis quickly rehashed his team's top priorities.
First and foremost, the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator said, his team wants to win all of its home games and claim as many division victories as it possibly can.
So far, so good at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are a perfect 4-0 there. When it comes to games in the division, though, the results have so far been mixed. Through two games, the Bengals have a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a road loss at Cleveland. This Sunday, they hope to get beyond .500 in AFC North games when they travel to Baltimore for a key conference clash against the defending Super Bowl champion.
A win this week could provide some momentum going into next week when the Browns come to Cincinnati for their second meeting of the season with the Bengals. Take these next two games, and the Bengals could find themselves resting at home the first week of the postseason before hosting a divisional round.
Again, the key word there is "could." There's a lot of the season left to go before we can start predicting exactly how the Bengals' postseason will shake out.
For now, all they can do is hope to win the games that are before them, starting with Sunday.
While you take the next few hours to get ready for the early-afternoon ballgame, here are four items you'll want to be sure to watch for:
1. Red zone warriors. One of the areas in which the Bengals struggled last week at Miami was in the red zone. They were 1-for-3 in converting those opportunities into points. Specifically, though, it was a second-quarter interception thrown near goal-line territory that hurt them the most. With the ball at the opposing 10-yard line, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a ball too far inside on an out route by receiver Marvin Jones. Dalton said the ball slipped. When it did, it flew into a zone that Miami cornerback Brent Grimes could snatch the ball from Jones and race untouched for an interception return for a touchdown. This week, Cincinnati can not have miscues inside the red zone or near goal-line territory. The Ravens rank as the NFL's second-best defense both in the red zone (31.8 percent conversion rating) and on goal-to-go situations (44.4 percent conversion rating).
2. Marvin's the best. Although Jones wasn't able to catch one particularly crucial pass last Thursday night, he has been catching just about everything else. The game before, on eight targets, he caught eight passes. Four of them resulted in touchdowns, pushing him toward a franchise record in receiving scores. As a matter of fact, Jones has been the league's best scorer this season when it comes to catching passes that have targeted him. Of the 41 balls Jones has been thrown this season, seven have resulted in touchdowns. That 17.1 percent clip is the highest target-to-turnover ratio in the NFL for any player with a minimum 40 targets. Denver's Julius Thomas ranks second, converting 15.7 of his targets into touchdowns. If Cincinnati wants to score, it won't shy away from him. If anything, it'll keep going to him.
3. Rotating the front. Keep an eye on exactly how the Bengals rotate their front four Sunday, as they move on without Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins. After Atkins tore his right ACL in last week's loss, the Bengals have been forced to get a little creative this week with how they play on the defensive line. Second-year player Brandon Thompson will most specifically take Atkins' place, fielding the majority of the snaps at that pass-rush interior position. In an effort to provide for a rotation and to keep Thompson fresh, look for the Bengals to mix in packages that include defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt on the inside, as well. Also, don't be surprised if newly acquired Kheeston Randall gets in on a series or two. The changes could even affect the linebacker group as perhaps outside linebacker James Harrison shifts down a little closer to the defensive line to provide more stability, security and size along the thin front.
4. Air attacks coming? Neither rushing offense has been overly impressive this season, so don't expect either team to live or die with the run. That said, though, Baltimore still will be committed to trying to establish the run early as it hopes that fifth-year running back Ray Rice has finally shaken whatever demons have haunted his backfield all season. On 97 carries, he has just 259 yards rushing this season. As a team, the Ravens are averaging 2.78 yards per carry. If they stay at that number for the rest of the year, they will set a league record for the lowest yards per carry in a season since the 1970 league merger. For that reason, ultimately look for Joe Flacco to take to the air for Baltimore. Dalton likewise will be trying to establish a passing game as he attempts to prove doubters wrong once again, and possibly post his fifth consecutive 300-yard passing day.