This year, anyone looking to win the AFC North is going to have to go through Baltimore to do it. The first team to get a crack at it will be the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football.
The jury is out on whether or not either of these starting quarterbacks can take that next step this season and all eyes will be tuned in to see which one makes an early season statement.
The Ravens are a team that I've been contemplating for over two weeks. Part of me wanted to take them on the spread, but my system has them graded out as five-point favorites (six-point favorites after factoring in the injuries).
For most of the offseason, the line was stuck at -6 in favor of the Ravens, but over the last 24 hours we've seen the money begin to come in on the home team. Right now, you'll see -6.5 across the board, but don't be surprised if it gets to a full touchdown by kickoff (odds from SBRforum).
Breaking down this matchup, I see three main advantages for the Ravens.
Let me go on the record and say I'm not a big fan of Joe Flacco. I think the kid is good, but he's not great (yet).
Cam Cameron and company are looking to change that this year by expanding Flacco's influence in the offense, but for now I'd need to see it for an entire year before I'm sold. It's nice to see him rip it up in the no-huddle in the preseason, but let's not get carried away yet.
On the bright side, he has Ray Rice, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta as safety valves. The O-line is solid but nothing spectacular, so it's vital to have options underneath and out of the backfield when defenses tighten up.
I don't expect to see a lot of two-tight end or three-receiver sets, but that could change this year. Either way, I like the ability of this Ravens offense to attack you in a multitude of ways.
Mike Zimmer has coached up an underrated defense and put them on the rise in the AFC North. The issue in this game is that they'll be without their best pass-rusher, Carlos Dunlap.
On top of that, their secondary comes into the season with questions. Dre Kirkpatrick was taken in the draft to be the future, but he's on the shelf. Nate Clements, Terence Newman, Leon Hall and "Pacman" Jones are other names on the list.
Really? That's a lot of former first-round talent that never really lived up to their potential. A lot of these guys also missed significant time in training camp and preseason.
I think the D-line has a nice rotation and there is potential at linebacker, but who is going to step up and be the leader here? Is anyone going to be a game-changer? Geno Atkins is a bright light, but the "collective effort" routine leaves me skeptical this time around.
On Wednesday night, we all saw what a bad interior O-line looked like. Tony Romo was rushed repeatedly and although it didn't change the outcome of the game or result in a bunch of sacks, it was a factor that Romo had to adjust to. There was also an inordinate amount of pre-snap penalties.
The situation could be even worse in Cincy. Starting center Kyle Cook was lost and guess who replaced him? Nobody. That was the one position where the Bengals didn't have any sort of reliable depth.
They signed Jeff Faine off the street and he has some knowledge of Jay Gruden's offense, but let's not kid ourselves. Inserting a center from the waiver wire at this point of the season is a cause for concern.
As if that wasn't bad enough, they are starting a rookie at right guard and the replacement for Andrew Whitworth leaves a lot to be desired. A.J. Green is a fantastic weapon and Jermaine Gresham has big potential, but the downfield passing game could be compromised with these O-line issues.
Andy Dalton played way above expectations last year and has great confidence, but he needs to do more than one big preseason pass to prove he has the arm strength to stretch a defense.
According to Football Outsiders, most of his problems last year came when he threw outside the numbers. Expect to see Gruden call more quick-step drops and rollouts to compensate for the O-line issues and lack of arm strength.
I'm not saying the Ravens defense is going to dominate this game because I have serious questions on that side of the ball. There's no Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson is gone and Ray Lewis lost weight so he didn't have to come off the field in nickel situations (even though he should). I expect teams to take advantage of these issues, but not Cincinnati.
Haloti Ngata is going to be a big load to deal with up front, and he should be able to free up a lot of space to stop the run and blitz if needed. The secondary got torched early in the preseason, but don't expect to see a repeat of that in this game. With some game-planning and a full lineup, I expect this group to be just fine, if not very good.
If there's one significant problem I have with the Bengals, it's that they didn't win a single big game last year. What was their record vs. playoff teams in 2011? Zero and 3000? Someone is going to have to show me how they will take that next step this year.
With a depleted O-line and their best pass-rusher on the injured list, I don't see it happening in Week 1. There weren't any significant free-agent signings to get me excited, and I'm not sure Kevin Zeitler and Mohamed Sanu are going to take the team to new heights this year either.
They might get a backdoor cover or keep it tighter than it should be, but winning this game straight up? I'd say slim to no chance.
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