Baltimore at Cincinnati (PK, 44.5), 8:20 pm ET, NFLN
Since the Steelers and Browns delivered a Week 1 tie, the winner of Thursday’s contest will have a 2-0 record and sole possession of the AFC North lead. A leg up on everyone else doesn’t hurt, even this early in the game.
So, who do you like? Take your pick. The line is telling you to.
The Ravens are expected to do more this season after making it through the preseason healthier than they’ve entered a season in years, while the Bengals were identified as a team that would likely continue to take a step back after finishing under .500 in consecutive seasons for only the second time in Marvin Lewis’ 15-year tenure.
His 16th season opened with a victory in Indianapolis, so with a new defensive coordinator in the highly regarded Teryl Austin and Bill Lazor back for a second season to run the offense, there’s a sense of optimism in place entering a Thursday night home opener against a Baltimore team that it has enjoyed tremendous success against over the years, winning seven of the last eight meetings.
The Ravens led Buffalo 40-0 before finally surrendering a field goal in Week 1’s most lopsided contest, so if nothing else, the degree of difficulty increases here given the road atmosphere and the improved opposition. John Harbaugh is also working with a new defensive coordinator since Dean Pees elected to retire only to change his mind a few weeks later, joining Tennessee in the same capacity.
Linebackers coach Don Martindale was promoted after being on staff since 2012, so there’s plenty of continuity in place. Baltimore’s defense didn’t allow a single first down until the second half and gave up 10 all game, limiting the Bills to 153 yards and a 2-for-15 showing on third down. They picked off a pair of Nathan Peterman passes and sacked Buffalo’s quarterbacks six times. Any way you slice it, the Ravens benefited from facing the NFL’s worst offense, but they’ve been doing a lot of winning so far in 2018.
Ironically, the Ravens’ 2017 campaign ended on Dec. 31 at the hands of the Bengals, who played spoiler and dashed their rival’s playoff aspirations with a Week 17 upset. Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard score in the final minute to produce a 31-27 upset after an Eric Weddle interception was called back due to defensive pass interference. After Joe Flacco failed to engineer a desperate comeback, fans in Baltimore watched their team walk off the field and into the offseason dejected and demoralized.
Baltimore went a perfect 5-0 in the preseason, winning the Hall of Fame game way back on Aug. 2 and defeating its opposition by a combined 55 points. While exhibition games are meaningless, winning them all suggests that they have superior depth, remained focused and practiced like pros.
To his credit, John Harbaugh saw the makings of this potential revival early, quickly stating that this group was putting together one of the most impressive training camps he’d ever seen. Combined with the fact they stayed healthy after seemingly being cursed with one season-ending injury after another before Week 1 over the past few years, the fact they looked so sharp in the 47-3 rout of Buffalo wasn’t entirely about how awful the Bills were.
Over nine months after last running into the Bengals, the Ravens visit them in Cincinnati and won’t have to deal with public enemy No. 1 in Vontaze Burfict. Cincy’s standout linebacker and defensive leader is serving the second of a four-game suspension for a PED violation, so while we may see a brawl or a late hit in what’s been a consistently emotional and nasty rivalry, one of the usual suspects won’t be the instigator.
Without Burfict, the Bengals were carved up in Indianapolis despite the fact that they put the game away by clamping down in the final quarter, scoring the last 17 points and putting the exclamation point on a comeback win by taking a Jack Doyle fumble 83 yards on a scoop-and-score from young safety Clayton Fejedelem. Cincinnati intercepted Andrew Luck once too but struggled to get off the field on third down, surrendering conversions on 11-of-17 chance to get off the field. If Flacco is able to replicate that on Thursday, it’s bound to be a long night for the home team, which sacked Luck only twice and gave up 380 yards of offense.
Austin should get better results as the season unfolds and Burfict returns, but he’s working with most of the same guys that have been on board with the Bengals over the past few years, losing only CB Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones and DT Chris Smith from last year’s group.
Flacco is working with a lot of new faces thanks to a revamped receiving corps and has immediately taken to the group, tossing touchdown passes to Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead against the Bills.
Cincinnati’s best offensive option remains All-Pro wideout A.J. Green, who was fed six times for 92 yards by Dalton against the Colts but fumbled twice, losing possession once. With last year’s No. 1 pick, John Ross, finally healthy and tight end Tyler Eifert having returned from a season-long back issue, Dalton has a lot of talented weapons to work with. Boyd is back too, while RB Joe Mixon looks stronger after an uneven rookie season and came up with a game-high 149 yards on 22 touches against the Colts, emerging as a valuable, productive threat with the second-most productive game of his young career. Former starter Giovanni Bernard only got one carry and one catch as a result but has plenty of experience going up against the Ravens over the years, owning two career touchdowns against them.
Baltimore is hoping for the type of defensive effort it got in its last visit to Paul Brown Stadium, where it pulled off a 20-0 shutout in the 2017 season opener. The Ravens turned Dalton over five times, intercepting him on four occasions in addition to forcing a fumble. Dalton rebounded and threw for 222 yards and three scores in Week 17 despite an off game from Green.
Flacco has a 19-to-23 touchdown-to-interception ration against the Bengals over his career, completing just 60 percent of his passes in contributing to his team’s recent struggles over a rival he originally won six of his first nine games against before this recent 3-8 run. He’s only won in two of his last nine visits to Paul Brown Stadium.
While the Ravens are hoping to start 2-0 for the third straight season, Cincinnati opened 0-3 last year and hasn’t opened with consecutive victories since 2015, part of an 8-0 run that helped yield its last division title.
Season win total: 8.5 (Over -120, Under +100)
Odds to win AFC North: 3/1 to 9/4
Odds to win AFC: 20/1 to 20/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 25/1 to 20/1
Season win total: 7 (Over -135, Under +115)
Odds to win AFC North: 10/1 to 5/1
Odds to win AFC: 40/1 to 40/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 80/1 to 40/1
The Ravens beat up the Bills and Pittsburgh tied Cleveland as the Le’Veon Bell saga dragged on into another week, so the Westgate LV Superbook eased up on its stance on the AFC North favorite. Pittsburgh (4/5) is still favored to win the AFC North but the Ravens have moved all the way up from the 4/1 they opened at. Cincinnati also got a bump, moving up from the 10/1 to win the AFC North that they were at all offseason prior to Week 1
The Bengals were one of the four biggest longshots to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl when odds were released, right there with the Jets, Bills and Browns. After taking down the Colts in Indianapolis, they have now moved way up. New York (60/1) and Cleveland (80/1) also saw odds improve. Buffalo moved to 1,000/1.
As far as this matchup is concerned, the Ravens opened the week favored by one point at most shops (1.5 at the Wynn) but the Bengals moved to a 1-point chalk themselves in many places too. There are a lot of pick’ems out there (Westgate, Wynn) but William Hill has the Ravens favored by 1 while the Mirage and a few online books have Cincinnati laying a point. The total opened at 44, climbed to 44.5 at most places and now has 45 widely available at many shops.
Shop away for a point or take a stab at the money line since Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are at -105/-110 depending on where you look. Team totals for both are available in the 21.5/22 range.
Burfict is suspended for Cincinnati, while Baltimore is without corner Jimmy Smith for the first four games and won’t have Maurice Canady to help the cause since he’s been ruled out with a thigh injury.
Baltimore will also be without DT Willie Henry (abdominal) and put veteran RB Kenneth Dixon on IR after he suffered a knee injury against the Bills. Alex Collins and Buck Allen should capably handle the workload to anchor the ground game.
The Bengals may be missing LB Preston Brown (ankle), who came up with the interception of Luck in Week 1 in his first game since signing a one-year deal after leaving Buffalo.
RECENT MEETINGS (Cincinnati 7-3 SU, 6-4 ATS last eight; UNDER 6-4)
12/31/17 Cincinnati 31-27 at Baltimore (CIN +8, 40)
9/10/17 Baltimore 20-0 at Cincinnati (BAL +2.5, 41.5)
1/1/17 Cincinnati 27-10 vs. Baltimore (CIN +2.5, 40.5)
11/27/16 Baltimore 19-14 vs. Cincinnati (BAL -3.5, 41.5)
1/3/16 Cincinnati 24-16 vs. Baltimore (BAL +9.5, 41.5)
9/27/15 Cincinnati 28-24 at Baltimore (CIN +2.5, 44.5)
10/26/14 Cincinnati 27-24 vs. Baltimore (CIN +3, 44.5)
9/7/14 Cincinnati 23-16 at Baltimore (CIN +2, 43)
12/29/13 Cincinnati 34-17 vs. Baltimore (CIN -7, 43)
11/10/13 Baltimore 20-17 (OT) vs. Cincinnati (BAL -2, 44)