The Baltimore Ravens (10-5) have not won a playoff game since the 2014 season, but they can get back in the tournament with a win in Cincinnati on Sunday. The Bengals (4-10-1) are on their first two-game winning streak since early in the 2018 season.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, January 03, 2021 – 01:00 PM EST at Paul Brown Stadium
The Ravens are a 13-point favorite at most betting sites and already dominated the Bengals 27-3 in Week 5. The Bengals have won two straight games despite being a big underdog, but this would be a monumental upset. Baltimore is one of five teams in the AFC with a 10-5 record. If the other four should win and the Ravens lose this game, they are excluded from the playoffs.
The Bengals infamously kept Baltimore out of the postseason in Week 17 of 2017 after Andy Dalton connected with Tyler Boyd on a 49-yard touchdown on 4th-and-12 in the final minute. Can lightning strike twice or will the Ravens return to the playoffs for the third year in a row?
Ravens: The Team No One Wants to Play
Each season usually has that team getting hot before the playoffs that gets the label of “the team that no one wants to play right now.” Baltimore is that team in 2020, and for a change, the label might be warranted.
After a three-game losing streak that involved a huge COVID-19 outbreak, the Ravens have won four in a row since quarterback Lamar Jackson returned. According to Pro Football Reference’s EPA model, Baltimore’s four best offensive games this season are the last four.
We know the Ravens can always run the ball as well as anyone with Jackson being a big part of that. Baltimore has rushed for at least 110 yards in 32 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in NFL history, only trailing the 1974-76 Steelers (37 games). Baltimore has only been held under 100 yards rushing once in Jackson’s career as a starter.
The passing game is still low volume, but Jackson has been efficient in the last month, completing 69.5% of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt and a 117.7 passer rating. Jackson is 4-0 as a starter against the Bengals, and while he has not been a great passer in most of those games, he has two 100-yard rushing games, including his career-high game of 152 yards in 2019. However, in an odd twist, Jackson rushed for a career-low 3 yards against the Bengals in the 27-3 win in Week 5. Could he save his legs this week for the playoffs? Not if it comes at the expense of his team winning this one.
Division games can be weird. Cincinnati’s big win over Pittsburgh just five weeks after getting destroyed 36-10 by the same Steelers proves that. However, the Ravens should be well positioned to score enough in this one to make it tough on the Bengals and it is showing on the NFL odds board.
Can Brandon Allen Play Spoiler?
It is hard to find a better example of NFL randomness than the last two Cincinnati games. When the Bengals beat the Steelers in Week 15, backup quarterback Ryan Finley threw 13 passes as the team took advantage of turnovers in their upset win. On Sunday in Houston, Brandon Allen returned and led the Bengals to a season-high 540 yards and 37 points in a shootout win over Deshaun Watson. It is the first time in franchise history that the Bengals had that many yards and points in a road game.
It was also the first time the Bengals won a game after trailing past the 12-minute mark of the third quarter under coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals were 0-24-1 in that situation under Taylor the last two years.
Between the Joe Burrow injury and Pittsburgh win, Taylor has likely kept his job safe for 2021. Another big win over Baltimore and he may buy himself another five years if the Marvin Lewis standard is any indication of how things work with coaches in Cincinnati.
This has been a tough year for the Bengals as they played chunks of the season without their best quarterback, running back (Joe Mixon), and now wide receiver (Tyler Boyd) while also seeing the full decline of A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, and the midseason departure via trade of Carlos Dunlap.
A win over the Ravens would be a great way to end a bad season, but this offense will have its hands full with a defense that had seven different players notch a sack of Burrow in Week 5. Allen is better than Finley, but the Ravens are still the superior team on both sides of the ball.
Baltimore has everything to play for in this one and should go the full 60 minutes with starters. While the defense may not look up to usual standards, bad offenses usually struggle to score 20 points on this defense.
The Ravens have won eight games by 14 or more points this season and all five of their losses were by more than a field goal. That leaves only two games this season (at Philadelphia and Cleveland) where the Ravens won by a tiny margin of 2-to-5 points. So unless you are going with the upset of the weekend in your NFL picks with the Bengals taking this on, I would trust the Ravens to cover the spread and win by two touchdowns to punch their postseason ticket.