Ravens vs. Bengals preview

When the season ends, this Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals could be viewed as the turning point for both teams, as well as the AFC North race.

If the Ravens win, it will be the kind of feather-in-their-cap victory that can allow them to not only put a little distance between themselves and the rest of the division, but prove they can win on the road in an always difficult place to play. If the Bengals win and start rattling off a string of subsequent victories, this game could be viewed as the linchpin moment to their season. It would be the week their string of disappointment ended, and the victories returned.

So this isn't any ordinary midseason showdown. This is a high-stakes Week 8 game that could have many playoff implications riding on it.

ESPN's Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to help you get ready for Sunday in this week's preview:

Coley Harvey: How are the Ravens viewing this game, Jamison? What type of message could they send the rest of the division if they jump out to a 6-2 start with a win in Cincy?

Jamison Hensley: In many ways, this is a statement game for the Ravens. They've been dominant in recent weeks, winning by an average margin of 27 points in their past three victories. But they've roughed up teams in the weak NFC South. The Ravens will officially declare themselves the team to beat in the AFC North if they can knock off the defending division champions on their home field. There is also the payback factor for the Ravens. Quarterback Joe Flacco has already talked about the team having something to prove against the Bengals. Not only did the Ravens lose to the Bengals in the season opener, but they have repeatedly struggled in Paul Brown Stadium. Flacco has a career 2-4 mark in Cincinnati, and the Ravens haven't won there since 2011. So, a victory would erase some bad memories for the Ravens as well as deliver another crushing blow to a reeling division rival.

Coley, the Bengals haven't won a game in a month, but the season hasn't reached the halfway point yet. Is it too dramatic to classify this as a "must win" for Cincinnati?

Harvey: Not at all, Jamison. I'd argue this is a must-win game. You mentioned it yourself: right now, the Bengals are reeling. After having so much success the past three regular seasons -- not to mention the success they had winning the first three games this season -- they're having trouble comprehending what the past three weeks means about their team. They have two losses to two really good teams (New England and Indianapolis), but earned that tie in a game against one of those NFC South foes you mentioned earlier (Carolina). To redefine themselves, the Bengals "must" earn a win. Also, there's the division race at stake. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was quick to point that out as motivation following the 27-0 blowout at Indianapolis on Sunday. The Bengals want to be in first place again. Also, they want to extend their 12-game streak of being undefeated at home.

Flacco was under a lot of duress in this year's first meeting between these teams, particularly in the final minutes. What type of pressure is on the Ravens' offensive line to protect better in this game, particularly on the left edge, where Eugene Monroe might end up missing more time?

Hensley: The big question for the Ravens is whether the left side of their offensive line returns. Monroe, the left tackle, and left guard Kelechi Osemele, both of whom are dealing with knee injuries, haven't been on the field together since Week 3. That being said, one of the biggest improvements this season has been their pass protection. Since getting sacked three times by the Bengals, Flacco has been sacked only five times in the past six games. That's a major turnaround from last season, when Flacco was sacked a career-worst 48 times. Under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Flacco has gotten rid of the ball quicker and the receivers have done a good job of getting better separation. Still, it all starts with the offensive line, and the Ravens have had some breakdowns with rookies James Hurst and John Urschel filling in on the left side. They need Osemele and Monroe when facing a Bengals defense that has 14 sacks in the teams' past five meetings.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens' pass rush is hitting its stride right now. The Ravens have recorded 10 sacks and 24 quarterback hits over the past two games. Can the Bengals slow down the likes of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil? And how has Andy Dalton handled pressure this season?

Harvey: Dalton actually has handled pressure, at least in the form of blitzes, fairly well this season, so I'll say yes, the Bengals can slow down Dumervil and Suggs. Dalton's best career numbers versus the blitz have come this season in the form of his career-high 62.5 QBR when teams send additional rushers from the upper levels. While he has only three touchdown passes against the blitz, including the pivotal go-ahead, 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the fourth quarter of the season opener at Baltimore, he most notably has just one interception. That pickoff happened after his arm was hit by a blitzing linebacker as he threw, causing the deep pass to flutter right into a defensive back's hands. In last week's game against the Colts, Dalton handled the blitz OK, but he had Colts linemen in his face all afternoon. With his receivers struggling to get separation, he was unable to set up quick enough passes. For the first time, he looked awful against standard pressure.

Jamison, if you had to put your finger on one reason as to why the Ravens have been able to play so well since losing the opener, what would you pick?

Hensley: It's the Ravens' ability to get off to fast starts. In their past five wins, they have outscored teams 96-17 in the first half. In their two losses, they've been outscored 21-3 before halftime. It was a sluggish start that caused the Ravens to drop that season opener against Cincinnati. The Ravens trailed 15-0 after two quarters and were shut out for the first 42 minutes, 40 seconds. When the Ravens trail early, they tend to get out of their balanced attack and throw the ball more than they would like. When the Ravens get a lead, this is a team that can protect it because of a strong running game and the stingiest defense in the NFL. It's certainly a proven formula. The Ravens are 49-10 when scoring first in John Harbaugh's seven years as head coach.

Another area where the Ravens have improved is their run game. The Bengals have gone the opposite direction, going from the fifth best run defense to No. 30. Will the Bengals be able to slow down the ground game Sunday?

Harvey: That's a question you, me, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and thousands of Bengals fans would like to know the answer to. It's hard to say there's been any one reason as to why the Bengals have struggled defending the run lately. Early in the season, they were gashed by occasional long carries from quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Jake Locker, but those had minimal impact on the outcome of those games. A week after the Bengals' bye, though, Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen rushed for 203 combined yards to pace a 220-yard rushing attack. The next week, it was quarterback Cam Newton who picked up 107 yards, mostly off the read-option. This past week, the Colts' Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson, of all running backs, made the Bengals pay with a 177-yard total performance. Cincinnati's biggest issues of late have involved knowing rush-lane assignments, having an inordinate amount of missed tackles (29 the past three games, per Pro Football Focus) and being without linebacker Vontaze Burfict consistently. He's finished only one game this season.