Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (-9, 41.5 o/u)
The Cincinnati Bengals (11-4, 5-2 home) let a huge opportunity slip through their fingers last weekend. The team could have clinched a first-round playoff bye with a win in Denver – and jumped out to a 14-0 lead – but let the game slip away in the second half, falling 23-20 in OT. Now the Bengals need a win in Week 17 plus a Denver loss to retake the no. 2 seed in the AFC. Cincy will try to do its part this Sunday when they host the Baltimore Ravens (5-10, 2-5 road) at Paul Brown Stadium (1:00 PM Eastern).
The Bengals were forced to start backup QB AJ McCarron the past two weeks after starter Andy Dalton went down with a thumb injury. Dalton had been posting MVP-type numbers before his injury and, while McCarron has exceeded expectations for a first-time starter, the Bengal offense hasn’t quite been the same without its leader. Dalton had the team averaging over 250 pass yards per game, but McCarron hasn’t surpassed the 200-yard mark in either of his starts.
With Jeremy Hill still struggling on the ground, the Bengals need the aerial attack to lead the way.
Whether the Alabama product will be able to up his game this weekend remains in serious doubt. On the plus side, he’ll have TE Tyler Eifert back and will be facing a Baltimore defense that pails in comparison to Denver’s top-ranked unit. On the down side, he suffered a sprained wrist on the last play of the game last Sunday and won’t be at 100-percent this weekend.
McCarron is projected to get the start, but if he aggravates the injury, the Bengals would be down to third-stringer Keith Wenning.
Wenning is actually a former Ravens draft pick, and Baltimore may be wishing he was still on the roster. The team turned to its fourth starting QB of the season last weekend, giving ex-Texan Ryan Mallett the start after signing him earlier in the week. (After starter Joe Flacco was lost for the year to a knee injury, Baltimore gave Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen cracks under center.)
Much to everyone’s amazement, the perpetually tardy Mallett was on time and on target with most of his throws and led the Ravens to a massive win over the Steelers (20-17). The upset put Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes on life support, which will be some consolation to a Baltimore fan-base that hasn’t had much to cheer about this year.
Mallett played arguably his best game ever as a starter, going 28 of 41 for 276 yards and a major. He also didn’t turn the ball over.
Arguably more surprising than Mallett’s performance was the play of the Baltimore D. The unit, which has been shredded for over 25 points per game this year, held the prolific Steeler offense to just 17 points and forced Ben Roethlisberger into two interceptions. They also had a third – which went for a pick-six – called back.
If John Harbaugh can muster the same sort of effort from his injury-riddled squad, Baltimore (+9) should be good for the cover. Despite a dismal 5-10 record, the Ravens have been competitive most weeks. They have two double-digit losses on their resume, but both of those came when Clausen was the starter. They also came against two very solid teams (Seattle and Kansas City) with veteran QBs and great ground games. Don’t expect AJ McCarron and Jeremy Hill to lead the Bengals to a blowout.
Pick: Baltimore (+9).
(Photo credit: emeybee (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped.)