It's no overstatement to say that the winner of the Week 1 game between Cincinnati and Baltimore will have a big leg up in the chase to win the AFC North, especially if the Bengals pull the road upset. The Ravens are 2.5-point favorites on NFL odds.
Super Bowl Curse
Baltimore entered last season as the envy of every other franchise. The Ravens were coming off a Super Bowl title, the franchise's second, and had won at least one playoff game for five straight postseasons, the longest active streak in the NFL. But the Super Bowl curse/hangover doesn't play favorites and it bit Baltimore. The Ravens lost their final two games to miss the playoffs for the first time ever under Coach John Harbaugh. Baltimore was the 15th Super Bowl champion that failed to reach the playoffs the following season, and the sixth in the last 12 years.
After losing future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, among others, the defense wasn't its dominant self, although it was still pretty solid in 2013. The problem was clearly on the other side of the ball. Joe Flacco was brilliant in the Super Bowl run and it got him a huge new extension. Whether Flacco was comfortable or what, he wasn't the same last year. He threw only 19 TD passes, his fewest since his rookie year, and had a career-high 22 interceptions. That was the most in Ravens history and most ever by a Super Bowl MVP the following season. Flacco got little help from a running game that averaged a scant 83.0 yards per game. Running back Ray Rice had been one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL since 2009, but he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in 2013. Rice had only one game with more than 75 yards rushing. His yards per catch were also a career-low at 5.5.
This offseason wasn't good to Rice, either, as he had an incident caught on camera at an Atlantic City casino hotel, with his now-wife. Rice was accepted into a diversion program, which upon completion could lead to the assault charges being expunged so he's not going to face any jail time. However, that matters little to Roger Goodell. He's not going to let a player hit women, no matter what the story behind the story was. Rice almost surely will be suspended for at least Week 1 and probably Week 2.
Cincinnati's season ended hugely disappointing last season. The Bengals won the AFC North for the first time since 2009 and made the postseason a third straight year for the first time ever. However, they flopped yet again in the playoffs, this time getting shocked 27-10 at home by San Diego. Cincinnati had been 8-0 at home during the season and had won each of its previous four games there by at least two touchdowns.
The loss led many to question whether Andy Dalton is the long-term answer at quarterback for the team. Coach Marvin Lewis also is a bit on the hot seat. He had to replace both coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, this offseason as they left for head coaching jobs.
The teams meet Week 17 in Cincinnati and the Bengals rolled to a 34-17 victory. Dalton threw for two scores -- setting a franchise-record with 33 touchdown passes -- and ran for another, also tossing four interceptions, as the Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs. Flacco struggled, going 30-for-50 with one touchdown and three interceptions. Baltimore managed 222 total yards and 47 on the ground. The Ravens beat visiting Cincinnati 20-17 in overtime in Week 10 as 1-point favorites on NFL odds. The Bengals dominated statistically but needed a Dalton-to-A.J. Green 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown at the end of regulation to tie it. The Ravens, who blew a 17-0 halftime lead, won it on Justin Tucker's 46-yard field goal with 5:27 left in overtime.
NFL free picks: Ravens -2.5 and 'under' 43 points are the way to look with your Week 1 NFL picks. The home team has covered the past four meetings and the under has hit in five of the past seven in Baltimore.