Only a week ago, the matchup looked like the rarest of treats: a Thursday night contest with game-of-the-year-type potential, two AFC powers and superstar quarterbacks battling it out under the lights in Baltimore.
Then the Ravens lost to the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals lost to the Houston Texans. Their showdown at M&T Bank Stadium is still a big deal. It’s just fraught with a little more desperation; the Ravens’ lead atop the AFC North has dwindled to a half-game, and the Bengals are on the outside looking in at the conference’s playoff picture.
“We know who they are, what they’re about, how good they are,” coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday. “This division, every team is great. We’re just going to try to play our best football against a great football team on Thursday night.”
Here’s what to watch in the divisional rivals’ Week 11 matchup.
1. The Ravens’ deep-passing game is in a funk. The Bengals have the kind of defense that can help.
Since Week 6, Cincinnati is last in the NFL in explosive-pass-play rate, according to TruMedia, giving up a completion of at least 16 yards on 18% of opponents’ drop-backs — double the Ravens’ rate (9.1%).
Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud had 11 such explosive completions in Houston’s win Sunday. He found little resistance, in particular, on downfield shots, finishing 5-for-7 on passes of at least 20 air yards.
That’s also where Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has struggled over the past month. He’s just 3-for-13 on deep passes since Week 6, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and his underthrown bomb Sunday to wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who had a step of separation, led to an interception that cut short the Ravens’ final drive before halftime.
“It’s a work in progress, for sure, but that’s what practice is for,” Bateman said Tuesday. “We’ll connect when it’s time to connect. Lamar is holding himself to a high standard, and I know I do as well, so we’ll get it, but in due time.”
Jackson went just 1-for-4 on passes at least 20 yards downfield in the Ravens’ Week 2 win in Cincinnati, but his 52-yard completion to wide receiver Zay Flowers midway through the third quarter set up a touchdown that gave them a 20-10 lead. Jackson said Tuesday that he was “pissed off” about his inconsistency throwing vertically.
“Hopefully, this Thursday, we catch them when we want them, we have success with the deep ball, we connect and have chemistry there,” Jackson said. “I believe it’s there. In practice, we do it all the time. Those guys catch the ball down the field 40 yards, 50 yards down the field. We need to transition that over to the games. That’s all.”
2. Bengals star defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who hyperextended his knee in Cincinnati’s loss to the Texans, is expected to play Thursday. But the absence of fellow starting defensive end Sam Hubbard, who was ruled out with an ankle injury, could be just as significant.
Cincinnati has one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, ranked 31st in yards per carry allowed (5.0) and 29th in DVOA, according to FTN. Hubbard is one of the unit’s most consistent run defenders. Without him on the field this season, the Bengals have gone from awful to abysmal.
According to TruMedia, Cincinnati’s run defense without Hubbard would rank last in the NFL in yards before contact per rush (2.29), explosive run rate (14.3%, more than twice the league average) and the percentage of plays stopped for no gain or negative yardage (11.9%). When Hendrickson’s been off the field, as well, the Bengals have allowed a staggering 5.6 yards per carry.
The Ravens will be missing left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who’s been ruled out with a knee injury. But they rushed for nearly 300 yards in Week 9 against a stout Seattle Seahawks front, and they did so without right tackle Morgan Moses. Thursday could turn into a prime-time showcase for rookie running back Keaton Mitchell, who’s averaging 14.3 yards per carry.
“We’ve got to make sure we do a good job with the types of runs they incorporate,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo told local reporters Monday. “We’ve got to make sure we’re in the right spots and making sure we have the proper reads on the option-type plays. They also have their power run schemes that we have to be good on. It definitely stresses us. We’ve just got to make sure that the guys we have in there are in position to be able to make a play based on what we’re in.”
3. Joe Burrow is not the same quarterback the Ravens faced in Week 2. Just look at his rushing stats.
In Cincinnati’s loss Sunday to Houston, Burrow had five carries for 20 yards — one kneel-down, one designed run and three scrambles, including a 17-yarder on which he eluded one pass rusher and bamboozled two other defenders with a pass fake.
In September, Burrow was playing through a calf strain that limited his mobility and improvisational ability. He had just one run, a 5-yard scramble, in the Bengals’ loss to the Ravens, and his average time to throw was a lightning-quick 2.28 seconds, according to NGS.
“Their offense goes as he goes,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said Tuesday. “Obviously, when he was hurt, they weren’t doing as good. Now that he’s back, he can move around and make every throw outside the pocket and inside the pocket. You can definitely tell he’s back to him, so that’s a great test for us that we have to go out there and perform, and just being able to stop him and control him.”
As a passer, meanwhile, Burrow’s back to his Pro Bowl form. Over the past three games, he’s completed 74.1% of his passes for 326 yards per game, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Burrow had 347 passing yards and two touchdowns Sunday against Houston despite missing wide receiver Tee Higgins, who’ll be sidelined again Thursday, and an end-zone drop from wide receiver Tyler Boyd late in the game.
4. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Monday that Thursday’s matchup “feels like a playoff game in November.” The stakes aren’t too far off for Cincinnati.
According to The New York Times’ playoff picture, the Bengals enter Week 11 with approximately an 8% chance of winning an unprecedented third straight AFC North title, behind the Ravens (43%), Browns (31%) and Steelers (18%). With a loss Thursday, Cincinnati’s division championship odds would fall to about 2%, while their chances of missing the playoffs would rise to about 68%.
The Ravens, meanwhile, can strengthen their grip on a division newly weakened by Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s season-ending shoulder injury. With a win Thursday, their probability of an AFC North crown would rise to about 55%, and the Ravens’ odds of making the playoffs would surge to about 96%.
5. The Ravens will be wearing their all-black uniforms for the first time this season. That might be bad news for a Bengals team that has lost 14 straight regular-season and playoff road games in prime time.
According to the X (formerly Twitter) account @RavensUniforms, which tracks the team’s performance in different uniform combinations, the Ravens are 18-6 (.750) in their all-black look. That’s the team’s third-best winning percentage among its 11 combinations; the Ravens are 3-0 in their black jerseys and purple pants and 25-8 (.758) in their purple jerseys and black pants.
“I like the all-blacks, but I like them all,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “To be honest with you, when I walk in the locker room and I see the uniform combination [hanging] in the locker, whatever one it is, it just gets me psyched up. It’s like, ‘That’s what we’re going to battle with wearing tonight,’ and that’s the one I like the best, the one that we’re wearing. That’s just the truth.”