2. Can Baltimore keep it up offensively? Ravens coach Brian Billick was an instant hit after installing himself as the offensive coordinator after dismissing Jim Fassel with Baltimore scoring three offensive touchdowns, gaining 293 yards of total offense, not having an interception as quarterback Steve McNair posted a season-high 121.5 passer rating and running back Jamal Lewis rumbling for a season-high 109 yards on 31 carries. It was a revelation for a usually moribund attack. Play-action, spread formations with four wide receivers, designed rollouts and waggles actually kept the defense off-guard. Now, the Ravens have to sustain that productivity against the lowest-ranked defense in the AFC North. Expect the Ravens to try to pound the football with Lewis against an undersized and perhaps undermanned linebacking corps that could be without starter Brian Simmons due to a neck injury.
3. Can the Ravens defend their home turf? It has been three consecutive games to former Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' Bengals. The Ravens gave up an average of 30 points per game in being swept last season. Cincinnati wound up winning the AFC North title, but now Baltimore is one game ahead in the division race. With Cincinnati having lost three of its past four games after a 3-0 start and Baltimore coming off a win that broke a two-game slide after an unprecedented 4-0 start, both teams have a lot at stake. The Bengals have allowed 20.3 points per game this season, seven points more per game than Baltimore (13.0) under defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
4. Will linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed's presence make a difference? A year ago, the Ravens lost 21-9 and 42-29 to the Bengals with Lewis and Reed out for both of those encounters with injuries. Lewis seems to have regained at least a good measure of his old intimidating form. On the other hand, Reed has been fairly silent since signing a blockbuster contract extension this summer and hasn't intercepted a pass since the season opener at Tampa Bay. Ryan will need Lewis to keep Rudi Johnson bottled up inside, and for Reed to protect the end zone as the Ravens' last line of defense.
5. Can the Ravens get tight end Todd Heap more involved? He represents the most difficult matchup for any Baltimore opponent with his blend of athleticism, size and speed. Heap has scored eight touchdowns in his last 10 games and leads Baltimore with five touchdowns this season, including a ricochet catch in the end zone last week in New Orleans. The Bengals truly struggled against Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler, and Heap could exceed that production against safeties Madieu Williams and Kevin Kaesviharn.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (26) Rushing (20) Passing (24)
Jamal Lewis has been running hard, and finally got some solid results for his efforts against New Orleans. However, his lack of ideal vision and explosiveness are preventing him from busting longer runs.
Derrick Mason is smiling again, a sure sign that he approves of an offense he gave an unprecedented B-minus. The Ravens are spreading the wealth, but should use Todd Heap and Demetrius Williams more often.
Right tackle Tony Pashos is anticipating the Bengals flopping intense left end Justin Smith to his side and he might receive chip-blocking assistance. Jonathan Ogden was absolutely dominant last game as a run blocker.
Total (3) Rushing (1) Passing (17)
Terrell Suggs registered just two tackles against the Saints even though he wasn't hurt. Trevor Pryce had the lone sack. Teammates have been plugging nose guard Kelly Gregg for Pro Bowl honors.
Ray Lewis isn't worried about Chad Johnson's playful threat to hit him in the mouth. He should be more concerned about Rudi Johnson, the Bengals' bruising, disgruntled runner. Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott aren't secrets anymore.
Samari Rolle is being used for target practice lately, and it seems to be a matter of confidence and a nagging foot injury. Chris McAlister is susceptible to pump fakes. Ed Reed hasn't been himself. Only rookie Dawan Landry has been consistent.
Matt Stover hasn't had much work to do lately, but is on a personal-best streak of 30 consecutive field goals. B.J. Sams has slipped to 17th in punt return average, but remains tied for fourth in the NFL in kickoff return average. Rookie punter Sam Koch is averaging 43.8 yards, putting him on pace for the second-highest average in team history behind Kyle Richardson (43.9 in 1998).
Total (18) Rushing (24) Passing (12)
Carson Palmer has one of the quickest releases in the game since Dan Marino. His arm strength and accuracy make him a constant threat to exploit the defense. He has made a nice recovery from a blown-out knee.
Rudi Johnson has been complaining about a lack of carries. To get the football more, he's going to have to produce at his old levels. Otherwise, the Bengals will just go one-dimensional with their aerial pursuits.
Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry comprise perhaps the most talented trio in the league. All are tall, surehanded and capable of leaping over defenders. It's a matchup nightmare for secondaries.
This is a hard-working, solid unit headlined by Justin Smith. Beefy former Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams remains a surly individual, but doesn't have much explosion left. Bryan Robinson and John Thornton are decent journeymen.
They miss suspended middle linebacker Odell Thurman, but not as much as they would if they didn't have emerging rookie Ahmad Brooks. Brian Simmons and Landon Johnson are extremely athletic, heady performers.
Deltha O'Neal and Tory James are hit-and-miss a lot of the time, and rookie Johnathan Joseph is pushing for an increased role. Former Terrapins star Madieu Williams was a smart draft pick. Former gym teacher Kevin Kaesviharn gets by on guts and guile, but can be picked on.
Shayne Graham has converted 12 of 14 field goals, including one 51-yarder. Former Nebraska punter Kyle Larson, who held the job for the Cornhuskers before Sam Koch, is averaging 43.9 yards, just ahead of Koch's first-year pace. The return game is unremarkable with Antonio Chatman and Kenny Watson.
EDGES: Quarterback: Bengals; Running back: Bengals: Receivers: Bengals: Offensive line: Ravens; Defensive line: Ravens; Linebackers; Ravens; Secondary: Bengals; Special teams: Ravens.
How the Ravens can win
1. Guard against the deep ball. Baltimore can't repeat its troubling trend of allowing receivers to stretch the field. Ed Reed can't gamble so much, and Samari Rolle has to be able to fend for himself much better.
2. Play physical. The Ravens have a clear-cut edge against the Bengals' smallish front seven, which appears tailormade for Jamal Lewis to run against.
3. Get to Carson Palmer. Palmer has one of the quickest releases in the game, and the Ravens need to disrupt his timing. Terrell Suggs can't pull a disappearing act against rookie tackle Andrew Whitworth.
How the Bengals can win
1. Exploit the Ravens' secondary. Touchdown passes are allowed regularly by this bunch, and the Bengals have three outstanding vertical targets: Chad Johnson, Chris Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
2. Bait Steve McNair. Although McNair is coming off his top performance of the season, he might not have completely cured the turnover bug. He can pick on Kevin Kaesviharn (three interceptions) only so much.
3. Tackle Jamal Lewis. If the Bengals can keep him from rumbling for yardage, the play-action pass and rollouts could dry up for McNair.
Rookie safety Dawan Landry has three interceptions, tying him for the team lead and ranks him second in the AFC and fourth in the NFL. There are only three rookies in the top 50, and Landry is the only rookie in the top 10. He ranks fifth on the team with 37 tackles, including 24 solos.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
CB Chris McAlister vs. WR Chad Johnson
It's bound to be talkative with the flamboyant wideout paired against the enigmatic cornerback in a clash of athletic standouts who tend to play the game with an edge. McAlister can't get suckered on the pump fake and double-move.
TE Todd Heap vs. S Madieu Williams
Heap will be a primary target downfield for Steve McNair again, and he leads Baltimore with five touchdown catches and has eight in his past 10 games. The former University of Maryland defender is a steadying influence in the Bengals' secondary.
Three downs with …
1. On what Brian Billick brings to the offense: "When Brian came in, he asked me what I like to throw and what I like to do and we put it into the offense. They did a good job of protecting me, and I think Brian did an excellent job keeping their defense off balance with keepers and with play-action and with running the football. When you run the ball as efficiently as we did, then you can do a lot on offense."
2. On mixing up the offense: "We have a few formations where we can run three different things. We can run the waggle. We can run the play-action, and we can also run the football out of it. That's what Brian has brought to this offense. He's showing things and doing different things out of it.
"When you get the defense thinking one thing and then do another, then you've already got half the battle won and you just have to get out there and execute it."
3. On the offense having higher expectations now: "That's what I told the guys. I was talking to the receivers, and we set the bar high and we know what we can do offensively. We just have to keep it up, and I think the guys need to have that mentality from here on out to get the job done regardless of what situation or what predicament we are in during the game."
Three downs with …
Bengals head coach
1. On players questioning the play-calling: "They just experienced that a couple of weeks ago in Baltimore. When you lose, you've got to question everything. It's not unfamiliar for the players of any team to go that way and you see it happen across the league. Any question of play-calling is just a question of attitude because they have to go execute no matter what play we call. They also get led down the line with questions like that."
2. On whether running back Jamal Lewis has declined: "Again, I think too much is always made of the running back. That's the thing that always happens to these runners. They are the same gifted runners when they get 1,500 yards or when they go for 60 or 70 yards in a game. Too many times you guys take shots at them that way, so I'm going to let it go at that."
3. On dealing with the distraction of his players' multiple legal problems: "Those things haven't really affected the core of our football team whatsoever. We have only had one player who ever plays any snaps that has had any problem with anything and the rest of it has been really not an issue for our football team. That has not really been bothersome. We played two weeks without Chris Henry. We'll play the rest of the year without him if he doesn't figure it out. Hopefully, he has because he's paid a heavy price."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland