The AFC North can definitely claim to be the best division in football this year, sending three teams to the playoffs for the first time–the Pittsburgh Steelers and the two teams who met on Sunday: the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
In the end, the Bengals didn’t need to win the game as the roars of celebration ringing round Paul Brown stadium during the Bengals’ failed final drive signaled that the Broncos has lost. That being said, it’s disappointing to see them slip up against better opposition once again, not ideal heading into the playoffs.
The Ravens managed to banish their road woes to finish the season 4-4 away from M&T Bank Stadium, but the win meant they clinched the division and No. 2 seed in the AFC, meaning they’ll need to win one game on the road at most, to reach the Super Bowl. The game didn’t feature much in the way of dominant performances but there were still plenty of talking points. Here’s a look at the key performances from this matchup.
Baltimore – Three Performances of Note
Cary Comes Good
This is exactly what the Ravens were expecting to see when they surprisingly named Cary Williams (+2.2) their starting cornerback before the season. He struggled at the beginning of the year but has been much better recently with just one negatively-graded game in his last five. This week was a perfect example of that improvement as he had his best game in coverage, giving up just four receptions for 28 yards from the 10 passes thrown his way. Even more impressive were his three pass deflections including when he was covering rookie sensation A.J. Green (-0.1). He’ll see tougher tests than this in the playoffs but the Ravens will be happy with his growth since the start of the year.
Joe Keeps it Cool
Was that really Joe Flacco (+2.2) against the Cincinnati Defense that has given him fits since he entered the league? Yes, it was, and while he may not have caught much attention on a day where Matt Flynn and Matt Stafford put up Arena League stats, this was one of the best performances from Flacco all year. Normally we see him try to force things and that’s where he’ll get off track, but on Sunday he very calmly grabbed everything the Bengals would give him, completing 15-of-19 for 130 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers would have looked better were it not for a Lee Evans (-1.6) dropped pass on 3rd-and-8 with 7:45 left in the second quarter. Did he look like an elite QB? No, but with the way the Ravens are running the ball just now he doesn’t need to be, he just needs to be efficient and that’s exactly what he was here.
Pernell Brings the Pressure
After a quiet last three weeks, rookie defensive tackle Pernell McPhee (+3.3) was back to disrupting opposing QBs. On the field for 24 snaps, the fifth-round pick generated three pressures and deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage. On 3rd-and-8 with 45 seconds left in the first, he drove left tackle Andrew Whitworth (+1.3) deep into the backfield, forcing a quick throw from Andy Dalton. McPhee showed the same ability to beat Whitworth in the team’s first meeting so it’s good to see his production is not just a case of him beating up rubbish offensive linemen.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
Reggie Let’s Ray Run
When Ray Rice (+1.7) looks back on the game against the Bengals, he can thank Reggie Nelson (-4.4) for huge assists on both his long touchdown runs. On the first, on 1st-and-10 with 13:09 remaining in the game’s opening quarter, Nelson was fooled by Torrey Smith (-0.9) coming in motion. Thinking it was an end-around, by the time he realised Rice had the ball he had already taken himself out of the play. Later, on 3rd-and-1 with 5:52 left in the game, Nelson over ran the tackle, allowing Rice to cut inside and avoid the diving attempt before racing for the end zone. Not to take away from those two huge runs, especially as both were sprung by nice blocks by Marshal Yanda (-1.0) and Vonta Leach (+2.0) respectively, but Nelson should have been in better position to try and stop both. When you add in the personal foul penalty after he gave up a 20-yard reception to tight end Ed Dickson (+0.3), it wasn’t a good day for Nelson at all.
After a rough first two seasons in the league, Andre Smith (-3.2) has seen a few more ups to go along with the downs this season. Sadly for Bengals fans, this wasn’t one of those games, with Smith struggling both as a pass blocker and in the run game. Giving up a hit and three pressures to four different Baltimore defenders was never going to make for a good day but when you add in his inability to create holes for the Bengals running backs it was a poor day all round.
Down on Dalton
The Bengals should be proud of their achievement of reaching the postseason with a rookie QB at the helm, however they must be concerned that Andy Dalton (-1.5) struggled again on Sunday, bringing him to eight games in a row with a negative grade. The conditions on a windy day in Cincinnati were far from perfect, but Dalton struggled downfield, completing just three of nine passes beyond 10 yards. He had much more success on shorter routes but that was never likely to beat the Ravens. Surprisingly, Dalton’s biggest struggles came when the Ravens didn’t blitz him, as he completed just 45.2% of his passes when Baltimore held back compared with 61.5% when they sent the blitz.
– The Ravens averaged 6.9 yards per carry, buoyed by Rice’s two big runs.
– Of the seven incompletions on passes thrown to Green, six were pass breakups by Ravens defenders.
– Bengals Punter Kevin Huber (+0.8) averaged 54.5 yards per punt, including a long of 69.
PFF Game Ball
He may not have put up a big number in the box score, but Joe Flacco delivered a very efficient performance and capped his day off with a nice touchdown throw with 19 seconds left in the first half.