The Cincinnati Bengals cannot win the AFC North Division today, but what they can do is all but eliminate the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.
Cincinnati (6-3) enters M&T Bank Stadium with a 2 ½-game lead on Baltimore (3-5) and a two-game cushion on the idle Cleveland Browns (4-5), who will visit Paul Brown Stadium a week from today.
If the Bengals can post back-to-back wins, they will put the clamps on the division and essentially wave bye to their rivals as they ride into their bye week with at least a 3 1/2 game lead with five to go.
“Honestly we feel like these next two weeks are the biggest of the season because of where we are in the division,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who missed the 22-20 overtime loss in Miami with a knee injury but is expected to play today.
“These games can tilt things one way or the other,” Whitworth added. “It’s going to be important to go out and play well.”
Just as quickly as the Bengals can put the division in lockdown, the Ravens and Browns can make it a deadlock.
Cincinnati has lost five of its last six games in Baltimore and four of the last five against the Ravens overall. And Cleveland already has one win against the Bengals, so pulling off a season sweep would hold even more value because of the tiebreaker advantage.
“These are a big two weeks,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “These are some big games, big games that can determine a lot. We know that.”
They also know that being 3-5 doesn’t take the fight out of a team or eliminate it from playoff consideration.
The Bengals were 3-5 last year before going 7-1 down the stretch to earn a wild-card berth. And the Ravens, after all, are still defending Super Bowl champions.
“Baltimore isn’t out of it by any stretch,” Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. “They’re 3-5, but they still have a chance. It’s going to be a fight.
“But we are still in a really good situation right now where we really control our own destiny,” Crocker continued. “This is a divisional opponent. Let’s win this football game then move on to the next one before the bye week.”
Today’s game marks a new beginning of sorts for the Bengals. Not only did the loss in Miami snap a four-game winning streak, it marked the end of the season for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
The Bengals were able to overcome the loss of seven other defensive players to season-ending injuries, but Atkins is a huge one.
To not miss a beat and take down the Ravens on the road would be another testament to the roster depth the team has built, as well as a giant confidence booster heading toward December and January.
“Going back and making comparisons of training camp and coming into the season and the beginning of the season to where we are now, there’s obviously been a lot of ground covered, a lot of good things,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “But let’s continue to push the envelope in other areas.”
Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) at Baltimore Ravens (3-5), 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM