The Cincinnati Bengals season, and possibly Marvin Lewis’ tenure as head coach, will come to an end Sunday in Baltimore.
So it only seems appropriate the game be played on New Year’s Eve, with its “Out with the old and in with the new” mindset. Although Lewis, who reportedly will step away from the team to pursue other opportunities, isn’t likely to make his decision public until a few hours into 2018. He has a press conference scheduled at 11:30 a.m. Monday.
But before that happens, the Bengals have 60 minutes of football remaining in 2017. And with the game being against a division opponent and the players wanting to send Lewis out a winner, a spirited effort is expected.
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If the Bengals are able to secure their seventh win in their last nine games against Baltimore, it could mark the end of the line for the Ravens as well, although a loss alone will not prevent them from making their first playoff appearance since 2014.
Here are six things to watch for in the game:
In addition to Lewis, and his assistant coaches, there are a number of players who could be making their final appearance as a member of the Bengals organization Sunday.
Ten players on the current 53-man roster are in the final year of their contract: punter Kevin Huber, center Russell Bodine, quarterback AJ McCarron, defensive end Chris Smith, tackles Eric Winston and Justin Murray, defensive tackle Pat Sims, running back Jarveon Williams, safety Brandon Wilson and linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
Another five are on Injured Reserve: tight end Tyler Eifert, running backs Jeremy Hill and Cedric Peerman, linebacker Kevin Minter and tackle Andre Smith.
The biggest story in the 20-0 loss Cincinnati suffered against Baltimore in the season opener was turnovers as the Bengals committed five of them.
That game set the tone for the season for both teams, as the Bengals have failed to find consistent success on offense, while the Ravens are leading the NFL in turnovers forced (33), turnover margin (plus-17) and interceptions (22).
“That’s the key,” Lewis said. “When you look at their (plus-17 turnover margin), they’re doing a great job with that. They scored some touchdowns defensively, and also in the return game on special teams. It’s a big part of where they are.”
Likewise, the Bengals’ inability to force turnovers is a big reason why they are where they are.
Unless the defense can force six turnovers Sunday, the Bengals will break the franchise record for fewest in a season, which is 18, set in 1994.
Only winless Cleveland (11) has fewer turnovers this season. And only five teams in the Super Bowl era finished a non-strike season with fewer than 13.
2015 49ers (5-11), 12
2006 Redskins (5-11), 12
2016 Bears (3-13), 11
2015 Cowboys (4-12), 11
2013 Texans (2-14), 11
The Bengals defense has had a lot of success against Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, particularly since Paul Guenther took over as coordinator in 2014.
In six games since Guenther took over for Mike Zimmer in 2014, Flacco is averaging 254 yards per game with five touchdowns and seven interceptions for a passer rating of 73.34.
And the Bengals are 4-2 in those games.
Flacco hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in 18 consecutive games, but he’s doing a much better job of taking care of the ball during the Ravens’ stretch of five wins in six games, throwing just two interceptions with eight touchdowns.
The Bengals rank seventh in the league in pass defense, and they haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer since Week 13 last year when Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz threw for 308.
The run of 19 consecutive games is the second longest active streak in the league behind Denver’s 33.
The Bengals enter the season finale ranked last in total offense and 31st in rushing offense.
The last – and only – time the team has finished last in total offense was 2008 with an average of 245.4 yards per game. The Bengals are averaging 275.3 ypg this season, which is 14.6 behind Indianapolis for 31st.
In 2008 when the Bengals finished last, they were just 3.7 behind No. 31 Cleveland.
In order to avoid the indignity of another last-place finish, the Bengals need to out-gain the Colts by 175 yards, or No. 30 Chicago by 270 or No. 29 Buffalo by 402.
And if the Bengals want to avoid finishing last in rushing offense, they need to avoid being out-rushed by Detroit by no more than 50 yards, or they need to out-rush No. 30 Arizona by 51 or the No. 29 New York Giants by 70.
With 1,220 rushing yards this season, the Bengals have been out-gained by three individual running backs – the LA Rams’ Todd Gurley (1,305), Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt (1,292) and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (1,291).
And they are almost guaranteed to post the fewest rushing yards in any 14- or 16-game season in franchise history. The record low is 1,439, set in 1995.
The team also is danger of setting the franchise low for average yards per attempt, which is 3.56 (2010). The Bengals head into Baltimore averaging 3.52.
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Hold the line
But before you chalk up any last place finishes, it’s important to note that re-shuffled, injury-depleted offensive line is coming off one of its best performances of the year.
With left guard Clint Boling moving to left tackle for the first time in his career and 2016 fifth-round pick Christian Westerman making his NFL debut while splitting time at left guard with 2016 college free agent Alex Redmond, the Bengals rolled up 142 rushing yards last week against Detroit.
It was the team’s second-highest total of the season and third of at least 130 yards in the last five games. The 4.2 average also was the second best of the season.
“I thought they played great,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “There wasn’t a lot of miscommunication out there, which is something you might have to worry about with a bunch of different guys in a bunch of different spots. But our guys communicated well. They were a big part of why we won the game.”
Baltimore ranks ninth in total defense (322.8) and 14th in rushing defense (108.9).
On the positive side of the ledger, Kevin Huber is on the verge of breaking his own team record of 46.84 yards per punt, which he set in his Pro Bowl season of 2014. But with a current average of 47.00, he can’t afford to have a bad kick Sunday.
The other significant numbers within in reach involve career stats. Quarterback Andy Dalton’s next 300-yard game will be his 23rd, tying him with Boomer Esiason for the most in team history.
Wide receiver A.J. Green’s next 100-yard receiving game will be his 32nd and give him sole possession of first place in that category. He’s currently tied with Chad Johnson.
The most interesting stat battle to watch will be sacks, where Geno Atkins (9.5) has a slim lead on rookie Carl Lawson (8.5) for the team lead, while Carlos Dunlap (6.5) is in striking distance.
Atkins has 61 career sacks, 1.5 shy of Reggie Williams for third place on the team’s all-time list, and 2.5 shy of Dunlap for second place.