Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) at Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
1. The NFL's most deserving Rookie of the Year candidate is headed to Baltimore and, no, Cam Newton is not buying a ticket to this AFC North throwdown
Bengals QB Andy Dalton may not be as dynamic as Carolina's rookie phenom, but the former Horned Frog enters Sunday's game with a higher completion percentage, more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions than Newton.
Most significantly, Dalton has guided a team that was in offseason disarray, and expected to struggle mightily, to a 6-3 record and legitimate shot in perhaps the toughest division in football.
Early on, the league's fad player may have been Newton and the trendiest teams the Bills and Lions. But of late, Dalton has surged to the front of the rookie quarterbacking class, while the Bengals have remained a threat while the Bills and Lions have begun to waver.
As teams enter the breach of division races, Dalton has only gotten better, throwing 11 of his 14 TDs over the past six games, leading the Bengals to a 5-1 record over that span. Meanwhile, over Newton's last six games, the Panthers are 1-5 and Newton has thrown seven TDs to six interceptions.
There's no question Dalton has been helped immensely by fellow rookie A.J. Green, with whom he has made an instant connection, and who will be a game-time decision against the Ravens (bruised knee). Still, just last year the Bengals were the soap opera kings of the league, so give credit to the rookie. Even after Dalton threw a crucial pick against the Steelers in the Bengals' lone loss over the past month, Steelers defenders credited his pocket presence and cool demeanor afterward.
2. No game better reflects the NFL's volatile, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately life than this one
If it's Friday, it must be a good day to be a Ravens fan. Or, is it bad? Unpredictability has been the rule in the NFL in 2011. The Lions went from darlings to wallflowers the past month. The Steelers went from too old, to once again overwhelming. The Patriots went on a ghastly -- for them -- two-game skid, then rebounded like Super Bowl champs. The Chargers cued their annual autumn meltdown, Mark Sanchez' Jets and Tim Tebow's Broncos, amazingly, own the identical record. And the Texans entered their bye week as the most tenuous No. 1 seed this late in the season, probably in history.
Such is life in the NFL, and no game better exemplifies it all than this one. Despite their inexplicable collapse at Seattle, if the Ravens win this one, they're back in first place in the division, regain the No. 1 AFC seed from the idle -- and hurting -- Texans and stand firmly in the driver's seat. But if they lose, the Ravens would fall to third place, on the outside of the playoffs looking in, with tests remaining against the 49ers, at San Diego and at Cincinnati.
Usually, when the Ravens flop as they did last week, they've responded with big efforts. Under John Harbaugh, in fact, Baltimore is 11-0 after a loss since 2009. But this is 2011.
Meanwhile, the Bengals continue to fight skeptics and odds despite being one of the most consistent teams all season. The most telling statistic in their upside-down 2011 story: Despite a rookie quarterback leading the way, the Bengals have been better amid the din of road games, where they stand 4-1 heading to Baltimore, while their home record is 2-2.
3. Is this as good as it gets with Joe Flacco?
Fans in Baltimore and around the NFL have been waiting four years now for the next great thing to actually become the next great thing. Against Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who always has had Flacco's number, now would be as good a time as any for Flacco to win a key game with his arm.
His is a vexing, frustrating story. Flacco plays in a defense- and run-oriented system, which limits his passing success. Even so, he's had his share of 300-yard passing games, which teases critics into believing Flacco is on the brink of joining the league's elite.
But often times, the Ravens offense falls flat and Flacco struggles, as has been the case in many crucial moments and in Baltimore's surprising losses. The Ravens scored just 13 points at Tennessee, just seven at Jacksonville and 17 against lowly Seattle.
Flacco's 54.8 completion percentage is unacceptable in this era of football, particularly for a team that features an elite back in Ray Rice and should thrive in the play-action passing game.
Few have figured out how to frustrate Flacco more than Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose defense has forced Flacco into nine interceptions against just two touchdowns in the last four meetings. The Bengals have won three of those games. For his career against Cincinnati, Flacco has had a quarterback rating above 70.1 just once. The wildcard in this one that may work in Flacco's favor and put a crimp in Zimmer's attack? The Bengals are scrambling in search of front-line corners, after the offseason departure of Jonathan Joseph and the injury to Leon Hall.
Dalton has etched his name among some alltime greats when it comes to rookie quarterbacks. His 14 touchdown passes through nine games are more than any rookie since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Among the names he has surpassed through nine games: Dan Marino, Jim Plunkett and Peyton Manning, whose 26 TDs rank as the most by a rookie. One of Dalton's favorite targets is A.J. Green. They, too, are attacking the record book.
Here are the all-time touchdown leaders for rookie QB-WR tandems:
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks, and with good reason. Andy Dalton has proved unflappable, even in the eyes of the Steelers, but can he continue staring down a Ravens' D that will be without linebacker Ray Lewis? Flacco, meanwhile, has had moments, but his 54 percent completion percentage this year must improve -- and against a hurting Bengals secondary, it should.
Still, the biggest factor could be the Bengals getting healthier and, thus, more productive in their front seven. Outside linebacker Manny Lawson stepped up with a strong game against the Steelers last week, and Rey Maualuga was back roaming the middle. The defensive front is where the Bengals have become a force, sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times last week.
Against a suddenly struggling Ravens offensive line that has given up 50 hits and 20 sacks on Joe Flacco, this should be where the Bengals prove to have the winning edge. Only two teams have scored more than 20 points on the Bengals this year. The Ravens don't have what it takes to become the third, even at home.
Pick: Bengals 23, Ravens 17
Last week's pick: Saints 29, Falcons 24Last week's result: Saints 26, Falcons 23SI.com season record: 8-2