John Lopez
Friday December 30th, 2011

Baltimore Ravens (11-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)

1. Will Bengals fans realize this is not the Beef O'Brady's Bowl and actually show up for a game that may change the city's football dynamic?

Officially, Sunday's crucial game with the Ravens is a sellout. It took a buy-one-get-one-free offer, several passionate pleas from players and coaches and some sponsors stepping up to get there. Still, an official sellout is a sellout.

But the Bengals' attendance struggles have been well-chronicled and almost inexplicable to the outsider watching this entertaining, winning team that features a pair of dynamic rookies in Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.

How bad have the draws been at Paul Brown Stadium? The Bengals were fighting for their playoff lives last week, fending off the Cardinals before a paltry announced crowd of 41,273. Earlier the same week, a Texas high school game between Aledo and Manvel drew 43,369.

It's easy to blame a lagging economy on what once was a premium football ticket in Ohio, but there's much more involved -- namely, lingering ill will and resentment toward the Brown family.

After years of deep-ceded resentment toward owner Mike Brown for sticking citizens with a ridiculously one-sided stadium deal, while building a team on the cheap, it only makes re-connecting with fans more important. Throw in an array of bad draft picks, washed-up free agent signings, a scouting department held together with gum and string, along with the summer's Carson Palmer debacle. And it's understandable why Bengals fans still hold a grudge.

But if somehow the synergy between fans and franchise reignites, this could be one of the more significant days in Cincinnati football history.

2. Is the Ravens' defense showing signs of cracking? Aging? Both?

It's ludicrous to suggest that a defense that features four Pro Bowlers and ranks No. 3 overall is over the hill or broken. Still, it's impossible not to notice late-season trends and wonder if the calendar might have something to do with recent Ravens struggles.

Another tell-tale sign of an aging defense the Ravens hope to dispel on Sunday: Winning at home, which the Ravens' have done in all eight home games this year, but losing even to bad teams on the road, where energy and adrenalin may occasionally lag. The Ravens enter Paul Brown Stadium with a 3-4 road record, including losses at Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego. In those losses, the Ravens gave up nearly 24-points per game.

It's late in the year. Bodies are beaten, joints aching. Over the past two games, the Ravens have allowed 671 yards and yielded more than 100-yards rushing to the Browns' Peyton Hillis and 90 to the Chargers' Ryan Matthews. Altogether, the Ravens' defense has given up an uncharacteristic more than 100-yards rushing to an opponent four times the past seven weeks. And in the last meeting against the Bengals, the Ravens gave up 483-yards despite limiting Cedric Benson to just 41-yards rushing. If the Bengals find balance this time, the Ravens could be in trouble.

3. We know the Ravens don't like to pass the ball a lot. The problem is, receivers don't seem to like catching a lot, either.

If you truly want to start a heated discussion in Baltimore, ask a Ravens fan if Joe Flacco is the answer. For a quarterback who's had immense success, his penchant for bad plays, fumbles, untimely interceptions and doing less with more offensively always sparks debate.

But the ticket to a first-round playoff bye and the home field advantage may well ride on Flacco's arm. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis figures to pull out every stop trying to suffocate Ray Rice and the Bengals' running game.

The reason? Anquan Boldin is out (knee), and the other wideout options are rookie Torrey Smith and veteran Lee Evans, and the latter has proved to be all but invisible as a target.

Flacco completed only two passes to a wideout in last week's victory over the Browns -- both to Smith. Over his past five games, Flacco is averaging just 180-yards passing, with seven TDs and four interceptions, with the vast majority of his throws going to backs or short to tight ends.

There's little question the Bengals are going to do all they can to make Flacco be the one who beats them. If he can't find seams and wideouts downfield, he probably won't.

The Ravens' veteran, often overlooked outside linebacker has had a stellar year. The task this week will challenge every facet of his game, as Johnson faces a running back in Cedric Benson who's adept between the tackles as he is kicking it outside. Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton also has blossomed -- specifically since torching the Ravens' secondary for 373-yards.

How has the team's focus been this week, knowing the stakes and that it's a division opponent that's familiar with your defense standing between you and a first-round bye and division title?

"There's definitely no shortage of motivation in this game. Just winning it would be huge, with home field advantage right there and you'd be able to knock your rival out of the division. We're familiar with each other and we know it's a game we feel we have to have. You've got to get home field if you can."

People may over-react to things, but it seems your defense has had some hiccups especially lately. Can you put your finger on why you think that's been?

"Everybody analyzes it and everybody wants a wants a big, complicated answer and a dramatic reason why. It's not that complex. I know it's cliche, but it just comes down to sound technique and focus. When we play good up front and physical, we have guys who can dominate any matchup. No one wants to hear that, but that's what it is -- just play sound football. We've let teams pop some runs and given up some yards. We definitely want to get back to our kind of football in this game. Obviously, teams that win the Super Bowl are teams that play well in December and are stepping on the gas. We need to get there."

What have been your impressions of Andy Dalton, especially after facing him once and preparing for him again?

"When rookie quarterbacks are playing well, they usually have a good defense and good running game. That's what I anticipated going in against him the first time. But he's got more. He's playing beyond his years. He makes good decisions and good throws. It's not like he's checking down every time. He's just a good quarterback. I know he does have good players around him, but he's doing a lot himself, too."

Few teams dominate at home like the Baltimore Ravens. In fact, in 2011 the Ravens improved their home record to 73-23 since 2000, pulling into second-place in the league over that span, trailing only the Patriots (75-20).

Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens are even more impressive at home, which is why the stakes at Paul Brown Stadium will be so high.

The Ravens' year-by-year record under Harbaugh, compared to the Patriots:

One team -- the Bengals -- is playing a true must-win. It's a desperate team facing a win-or-go-home proposition.

The other team is playing a game it would love to win for the sake of a division crown and home-field. Thus, the Bengals have every reason to have a slight edge, playing for much more and figuring to have a much better home-field atmosphere.

Still, emotion only lasts so long. At some point talent and experience prevails. The Bengals feature Andy Dalton, who has stepped up as a rookie. The Bengals also feature perhaps the most explosive player on the field in wideout A.J. Green.

But if this is a de facto playoff game, then the outcome probably will be determined as such -- by the better ground game and better defense.

Both of those checkmarks go to the Ravens.

Ravens 19, Bengals 13.

Last week's pick: Saints 35, Falcons 24 Last week's result: Saints 45, Falcons 16 season record: 12-4

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