One fourth-and-12 stood between the Ravens and the playoffs.
They had fallen short the previous two seasons, but a second-half rally had them on the cusp as the final hours passed on the final day of 2017. They had only to stop Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals one more time.
Tears and catatonic poses in the Ravens’ postgame locker room told the story of what occurred on that climactic play. Terrell Suggs took a lengthy pause as he dwelled on the image of Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd slipping away from three purple-clad defenders on a 49-yard catch-and-gallop to the end zone. The most disappointing regular-season defeat of his career, Suggs called it, a “bad dream.”
No matter what happens when the Ravens play the Bengals the day after Christmas, it will not carry the finality of that New Year’s Eve game from four years ago. Even if the Ravens lose — and they are underdogs — they will have two more chances to make their case for an AFC playoff spot. But for now, this trip to Cincinnati looks like the day on which the AFC North will be decided. Will it be the Ravens, heavy favorites according to most projection systems as recently as a few weeks ago? Or the upstart Bengals, who hammered them 41-17 when the teams met in Baltimore two months ago?
Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz was surprised when he ran the numbers, which showed the Ravens would have an 80% chance to make the playoffs if they defeat the Bengals and a 24% if they do not. For the Bengals, it would be 75% with a win, 28% with a loss.
“WOW, the Bengals-Ravens game is SUPER important,” Schatz tweeted.
Schatz’s analytics perspective echoed the words of Ravens coaches and players, who seem to understand their backs are finally against the wall after three straight losses by a combined four points.
“This game is going to go a long way in terms of determining who wins the division,” coach John Harbaugh said as he kicked off his Monday news conference.
“I’d say every week from here on out is a playoff game,” said veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, who began his career with the Bengals.
The view was similar from Cincinnati, where the Bengals have stumbled several times this season just as they appeared ready to take off. One of those slip-ups, against the lowly New York Jets, came a week after they shellacked the Ravens.
“We’re here with everything on the line in this game,” quarterback Joe Burrow told Cincinnati reporters as he prepared for the rematch with the Ravens. “This is exactly why you play the game, big games in December against great players and great teams.”
“It would be big. It’ll be just another sign of us showing that we’re growing as a franchise,” cornerback Mike Hilton added. “That we’re here to stay for the next X amount of years. It would be a big statement to everybody in the AFC North and everybody around the league.”
The Bengals’ own website has referred to the game as the biggest in Zac Taylor’s three years as head coach.
By any objective measure, the Bengals are catching their divisional nemesis at an opportune moment. Not only have the Ravens lost three in a row to put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. Not only are they sorting through the roster wreckage left by season-ending injuries to star players and another COVID-19 outbreak. They’ll be without franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson, who hobbled off the field with a sprained ankle in the second quarter of the team’s Week 14 loss to the Cleveland Browns, and without his backup, Tyler Huntley, who was placed on reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday.
The Ravens took a 24-point thrashing from Cincinnati with Jackson at quarterback and with a relatively healthy secondary and with a full collection of edge rushers. When they practiced Wednesday, 11 members of their 53-man roster were on or headed to the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Not an ideal equation for the most consequential game of the year. And they will face an opponent that has benefited from unusually good health. Only one Bengal, starting cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, appeared on the reserve/COVID-19 list as of Wednesday, and starting tackle Riley Reiff is the most significant Cincinnati player on injured reserve.
But the Ravens have yet to lay down before the obstacles thrown their way in an unlucky 2021. They’re coming off a game in which they nearly rallied from 14 points down to defeat the NFC’s top seed, the Green Bay Packers. Even Harbaugh’s much-debated call for a 2-point conversion attempt turned into a rallying point for players, who applauded their coach’s win-now boldness.
They have vowed to fight on no matter who is healthy enough to perform.
“It brings us closer as a team,” wide receiver Marquise Brown said. “We’ve been hit with adversity after adversity, and some ways, we find ways to be in games, we find ways to win games. And just to know we’re never out of things, no matter who we have available, is a great sign for our team.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, who has felt the brunt of the latest COVID-19 surge, acknowledged the “unsettling” impact of so many roster hits.
“I think it affects the mentality of the players who are not being able to play in the game because they’ve tested positive; it affects them because they want to be out there with their teammates, playing these types of games,” he said. “But the guys that are going to be out there on that field? They’re going to have the mentality we need to have to go play this game. Everybody knows the standard when they walk in this building.”
Football Outsiders was not alone in projecting how much more difficult that fight would be if the Ravens lose to the Bengals. With a victory, their playoff chances would soar to 83% and their chances at a divisional title to 73%, according to the analytics website FiveThirtyEight. With a loss, those chances would stand at 33% and 10%, respectively. The site ranked the game’s importance at 100 on a 100-point scale.
Both teams will face difficult matchups the week after, the Ravens at home against the Los Angeles Rams and the Bengals at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. Both will close with divisional games, the Ravens at home against the Steelers, the Bengals on the road against the Cleveland Browns.
So it’s not as if this rematch will settle all AFC North business, but the loser will be thrust into genuine must-win territory.
Is this do-or-die time for the wounded Ravens?
“Shoot, I feel like every game in the NFL is important, not just this game,” Huntley said. “I feel like it’s a big game, but we’ve got to treat it as a regular one.”
“Anybody can put whatever label on it that they want,” Harbaugh said. “That’s not really my mission — to put labels on it and name it with any particular phrase.”
He did allow that there is “a lot at stake.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Bengals by 3