Thanks to the Baltimore Ravens' loss to the Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals' win over the Vikings on Sunday, much of the drama has been snatched away from this weekend's regular-season finale between the Ravens and Bengals.
Cincinnati has already locked up a playoff spot and the AFC North crown. The winner-take-all scenario for Sunday's season finale no longer exists. If the Ravens are going to join the Bengals in the postseason, and perhaps back at Paul Brown Stadium for the wild-card round, a win this week will be crucial. There still is a lot riding on this must-win game for them.
In the season's first meeting between these teams, it took a last-second Hail Mary touchdown to take the game to overtime. In the extra period, a Justin Tucker field goal allowed the Ravens to walk off with the division victory at home.
As we get you set for this latest AFC North matchup, we turn to ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey for more.
Harvey: Jamison, what do you think the mindset of the Ravens is after their worst loss under coach John Harbaugh?
Hensley: The Ravens are moving on as quickly as possible, and they have to do that in order to have a chance at beating the Bengals in Cincinnati. Baltimore has struggled enough on the road this season (going 2-5) that it can't have lingering memories of getting beaten up by the Patriots. The Ravens understand they lost their shot at winning the AFC North and controlling their playoff fate. But if they can clinch a playoff berth (and it will take some help), the Ravens control their destiny again. The Ravens' history is they don't dwell on getting blown out. The Ravens are 9-0 in games following a loss by double digits.
The Bengals have an impressive trend going as well with at least 40 points in four straight home games. What's been the key to Cincinnati's success at home?
Harvey: That was the most-asked question in the locker room following Sunday's 42-14 win over the Vikings, and the Bengals could only attribute it to one thing: their fans. Initially, part of you doesn't want to believe that's possible. After all, there were a number of empty seats Sunday. But when you actually stop and think about it, the players may be right. When the Bengals' defense is on the field on third down, "The Jungle" as they call it, seems to come to life. Full or not, the stadium gets fairly loud, and it seems like opposing offenses have had all sorts of confusion during the most important parts of the games they've played in Cincinnati. The Bengals have a league-best 22.5 percent third-down conversion rate at home. They also rank second in the league in scoring at home, posting an average 34.4 points per game at Paul Brown Stadium. Only the Broncos are better inside their home venue.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been key in helping them run up the score that often. So having said that, how do you think the Ravens plan to defend Dalton?
Hensley: In the earlier meeting with the Bengals, Baltimore held Dalton to a 52.2 passer rating, the second worst of his career. The Ravens were relentless with their pressure, recording five sacks and hitting Dalton nine times. But the Baltimore defense has been in a pass-rush rut lately. The Ravens have produced four sacks in their past four games. There has been a lack of pressure off the edges. Terrell Suggs ended a six-game drought by getting to Tom Brady on Sunday. Elvis Dumervil, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, has one sack in his past five games. And the Ravens' best interior rusher, Art Jones, suffered a concussion on Sunday and it's unknown whether he'll play against the Bengals.
Speaking of concussions, what's the latest on linebacker Vontaze Burfict? Has he been the defense's MVP this season?
Harvey: Quickly to your point about pressuring Dalton, that will most certainly have to be the Ravens' game plan against him. He hasn't faced a pass rush quite as challenging as Baltimore's since that game, and that's one reason he's been so successful recently. Pro Football Focus said he was pressured only eight times on his 41 dropbacks against the Vikings.
Back to Burfict. As we're filing this, there isn't much of an update on Burfict other than the fact that he has spent part of the week under concussion protocol. It's not clear when he picked up the possible concussion, but one of his last plays Sunday came when he delivered an accidental helmet-to-helmet blow on Matt Cassel as the quarterback was sliding at the end of a scramble. We'll see how he keeps progressing throughout the week, but I'd bet on Burfict playing. He hasn't missed a game this season, and clearly hates being off the field. Still, with much of the Bengals' postseason desires already wrapped up, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't play all game even if he is healthy enough to.
Speaking of injuries, how has Joe Flacco's knee injury affected his play recently?
Hensley: Flacco has had his worst season in the NFL, so I'm not saying he struggled solely because of a sprained left knee. But the injury obviously has affected his mobility and ability to step into throws. Flacco didn't complete his second pass Sunday until the second quarter. Now he has to go to Cincinnati, where he has had his problems in the past. Flacco is 2-3 at Paul Brown Stadium with a 66.8 passer rating. He has completed 57.5 percent of his passes there with four touchdowns and six interceptions. The key for Flacco is limiting his mistakes. He's thrown a career-worst 19 interceptions, seven more than in any of his previous five seasons. With the Ravens' current playoff situation, there is little margin of error for Flacco and the Ravens.
This is the Bengals' first AFC North title since 2009, and the first for Dalton and A.J. Green. How is a young team like the Bengals handing this success?
Harvey: Honestly, they're handling it quite well. Aside from their traditional post-win "Who Dey" chant, you didn't hear any other celebrating coming from the locker room following Sunday's win. By the time reporters were allowed in, word began trickling among the team that the Dolphins had just lost, giving them an official berth to the postseason. When players were asked about the meaning of clinching a playoff spot, they were a little excited, but mostly reserved. There was unfinished business, they felt.
For as young as the Bengals are, with their exhaustive list of second-, third- and fourth-year contributing players, it's still a group that has seen enough postseason disappointment to know that the journey isn't yet complete. The past two seasons, the Bengals have made it to the wild-card round and were immediately bounced out. They don't want that to happen again this year.