On the final day of the 2011 regular season, the Ravens (11-4) travel to Cincinnati to take on the desperate Bengals (9-6), who can secure a playoff spot with a win Sunday. The Ravens have a lot at stake, too, with a victory giving them the AFC North title, a first-round bye playoff and two weeks rest for a handful of ailing players.
Here are five storylines to follow Sunday as these division rivals play a must-win game (for different reasons):
1. Banged-up birds: The Week 16 win over the Cleveland Browns was a costly one for the Ravens. Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda suffered a rib injury, cornerback Cary Williams got a concussion and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe got his bell rung, too. Also, defensive end Cory Redding (ankle) and kicker Billy Cundiff (calf) sat out the game with injuries. We won’t know until after warm-ups which of these players will be healthy enough to suit up.
2. Get your ground on: It’s expected to be a windy day at Paul Brown Stadium, so don’t be surprised if these teams try to take the air out of the ball. Ravens running back Ray Rice ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns in their last meeting and Cedric Benson has had success against the Ravens in the past. There will still be passes thrown Sunday, but whoever establishes the run first will have the best chance of winning.
3. Meet Mr. Green: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green leads all NFL rookies in receptions (63), receiving yards (1,031) and receiving touchdowns (seven) this season, but he didn’t play against the Ravens in November. He will be in the lineup Sunday, and his speed, leaping ability and ball skills will pose a problem for the Baltimore pass defense, especially if Williams is out. The Ravens will have to worry about Jerome Simpson, too.
4. Struggles in Cincinnati: The combination of Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Carson Palmer gave the Ravens fits, especially at Paul Brown Stadium. They Ravens have lost five of their past six games in Cincinnati. Will their struggles there continue in the Andy Dalton era? Dalton has looked good so far, but it’s clear that Lewis, who still knows how to scheme against the Ravens, has been the difference in this rivalry.
5. On the road again: The Ravens’ issues on the road have been well-documented. They are 3-4 on the road, and there have been common themes in those games: getting behind early, abandoning the run, struggling to get to the quarterback and losing the turnover battle. With so much at stake, the Ravens will be focused and ready to go for this one, but if they fall behind early, doubt and a here-we-go-again mindset could creep in.