NFL Preview - Baltimore (5-2) at Cincinnati (3-2-1) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Shut out a weekend ago, the Cincinnati Bengals will try to rebound and keep their club-record home unbeaten streak alive this Sunday in a big matchup with the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals ripped off three straight victories to begin the season -- including a Week 1 road win over the Ravens -- but have yet to win following a Week 4 bye. They have dropped road contests around a 37-37 tie to visiting Carolina on Oct. 12, falling into third place in the division.
Baltimore has grabbed early control of the AFC North by winning five of six since its loss to Cincinnati, going a game up on 4-3 Pittsburgh.
The Bengals had won 11 in a row at home before tying the Panthers in a shootout-like contest, but their offense did nothing a week later against the Indianapolis Colts. Cincinnati was outgained 506-135 in losing a 27-0 contest.
Without star wide receiver A.J. Green for a second straight week due to a toe injury, Cincinnati mustered only eight first downs. Andy Dalton threw for just 126 yards on 18-of-38 passing while under heavy pressure for much of the day.
"When you don't have one of your better players, it's a difficult thing when you don't score points, but you can't use that as an excuse," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "We didn't play well enough across the board."
Tight end Jermaine Gresham came up with a career-best 10 catches for 48 yards in the lopsided loss, but running back Giovani Bernard was held to a mere 17 yards on seven carries.
"They played well and we didn't execute. I think that's what it comes down to," said Dalton. "We got beat in every part of it offensively."
Cincinnati will try to make up ground as it will play three straight at home. The club has not lost at home since Dec. 9, 2012. The Bengals have won four of their last five at home over the Ravens as well while also taking three of the previous four meetings overall.
The Ravens have used a quick-starting offense and sack-heavy defense to win two in a row. Quarterback Joe Flacco has seven touchdown passes over that span, throwing five against Tampa Bay on Oct. 12 before hitting Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels for scoring throws in last Sunday's 29-7 rout over visiting Atlanta.
Flacco threw for 258 yards while also getting picked off twice. Smith ended with 81 yards receiving on three catches and the defense logged five sacks for a second straight week.
"That's a hard-fought game and a big win," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "That's a good football team that came in here and our guys played really well."
Justin Forsett ran for 95 yards on 23 carries and Bernard Pierce plunged into the end zone from a yard out to give the Ravens their third straight win at home.
Baltimore is aiming to open a season 6-2 for the fourth time under Harbaugh, doing so each season between 2010-12 while making the playoffs each year.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The outcome of this game could depend on if Green is able to go. He has put together a few big outings against the Ravens, with Week 1 being no exception.
Green made a 77-yard catch in the fourth quarter of that victory to erase a one-point deficit, juggling and hauling in a pass that was actually tipped by a Ravens defender.
The dynamic wide out has 27 catches for 465 yards in six career games against the Ravens with 50-plus yard touchdown catches in each of the last three meetings.
"You have to assume that any player on any team that might have a chance to play, you have to prepare for him, because he could be out there," said Harbaugh. "But you always look and see in the injury report and see whether they practiced or not."
Green did not, in fact, practice on Wednesday, but has not been ruled out. Lewis noted on Monday that Green had made a lot of progress and the receiver was able to some running on the rehab field Wednesday, but the club can't afford to rush him back early just because it is struggling.
"It's up to when he's physically ready to go," said Lewis. "That decision is not in my hands. When he is significantly healed he'll be ready to play. He'll know it, I'll know it, and then he'll be ready to move forward."
Without Green last weekend, the Bengals went 1-for-13 on third downs and Kevin Huber came out to punt 11 times.
Baltimore's defense will try to get into the face of Dalton and mirror its effort from the last two games. Linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been at the charge of the attack, logging five sacks in his last four games with two against the Falcons.
Dumervil also recovered a fumble caused by one of outside linebacker Pernell McPhee's two sacks on the day.
"The first couple weeks have been more a hit and kind of getting to the guy, and then obviously, sacks come in bunches," said Dumervil. "True sack artists know that. So, we just have to continue to be disruptive. And obviously, the guys in the back end helping us with coverage is definitely huge."
The Ravens did not sack Dalton in Week 1 as the Bengals quarterback threw for 301 yards on 25-of-38 passing.
"I wouldn't say they're a whole lot different," Dalton said of Baltimore's defense from Week 1 to now. "They're really sound, they're smart, they play well. We've got to be ready for everything just like we were the first week of the season. They've won a lot of games so far, so we've got to do what we can to slow them down, and do what we can to win this one."
Baltimore hasn't been as lucky at the linebacker spot. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict has been plagued by injury, the latest a cervical strain caused while making a tackle last weekend.
Fellow linebackers Rey Maualuga (hamstring) and Emmanuel Lamur (shoulder) also are battling injuries, forcing the likes of Jayson DiManche and Vincent Rey into extended playing time.
Baltimore is in line to get a pair of left-sided offensive lineman back from knee ailments in tackle Eugene Monroe and guard Kelechi Osemele as both practiced on Wednesday. Monroe has missed the last four games following surgery, while Osemele has been out the last two games.
That could further improve an offense that is up to seventh in the NFL with 387.1 yards per game and sixth in scoring at 27.6 points per game.
The Ravens will have a new long snapper this Sunday after Morgan Cox torn his right ACL in the fourth quarter last Sunday. Baltimore signed Kevin McDermott, who played in 19 games, including the playoffs, for the San Francisco 49ers a season ago as an undrafted rookie.
It's still early, but if the Bengals are to turn it around, this will need to be the week. They are in danger of canceling out their fast start and can't afford to stumble on a generous stretch of three in a row at home.
"Regardless of where we're playing, we know how important this game is," said Lewis. "Baltimore is playing very well right now. They're doing a good job both running the ball and throwing the ball, and obviously they're playing good on defense; being very explosive."
Cincinnati has now added in offensive struggles to a defense that is allowing 416.7 yards per game, ranked 31st in the NFL.
Baltimore, meanwhile, has gotten things together since some early struggles, mixing in a well-round offense. Assuming Green is less than 100 percent at best, the secondary should have more time to allow the pass rush to get to Dalton, unlike Week 1.
Flacco, meanwhile, should have no trouble finding Steve Smith and Daniels across the middle, taking advantage of the Bengals' injury issues at linebacker.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 16