OWINGS MILLS — There’s good reason to believe that the Baltimore Ravens will avoid falling into the trap of overlooking the pitiful Cincinnati Bengals, confirmed skid row inhabitants.
In the midst of transforming themselves into a playoff contender, the Ravens (7-4) have displayed a singular focus under first-year coach John Harbaugh that should serve them well against the Bengals (1-9-1) today at Paul Brown Stadium.
The evidence can be found in the Ravens’ 5-0 record against teams with losing records, including a victory over the Bengals, sweeping the Cleveland Browns (4-7) to go with wins over the Oakland Raiders (3-8) and Houston Texans (4-7).
So, are the Ravens worried about the Bengals potentially derailing their promising season?
"Ruin our season?" defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "They’re not ruining our season. You basically deserve what you get by now."
The Ravens have been installed as seven-point favorites, matching their largest spread of the season when they were favored by a touchdown over the Raiders.
And the Bengals are missing quarterback Carson Palmer due to an elbow injury that may require surgery, are still enduring controversial wide receiver Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson’s antics and have the last-ranked offense in the league.
Can the Bengals legitimately be considered dangerous at this advanced stage of their regression?
"This is a game that we’ve got to win, and we understand what’s going on," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We see the big picture. We understand what we’re going into.
Applying that saying to their own situation, the Ravens can’t afford a misstep against a Cincinnati team that has plummeted to 31st in scoring (13.5 points) and 25th in points allowed (25.1).
With Bengals coach Marvin Lewis under scrutiny and Cincinnati having 15 players on injured reserve, including six starters , with another five players waived with injury settlements, it has been a disastrous season.
"They always, always play us hard," safety Ed Reed said. "We know that they’re not going to lay it down. They haven’t laid it down. So, we’ve got to come out and do the things that we’ve been doing: get after these guys and try to do our best about letting us get our hands on them."
The Ravens are well aware of the reality that they haven’t swept the Bengals since 2002 and have returned from Cincinnati as losers in their past three road trips against their AFC North rival.
"We’ve all been in those shoes at some time or another in this league," Harbaugh said. "They’re going to play their hearts out just like they always do. The media can say what they want about who has what to play for, but I think the guys playing the game understand what kind of game it’s going to be.
"We’re not playing a record. We’re playing a team. Our guys aren’t dumb enough to look at any football game any other way."
Although the Bengals are the only AFC team that has been eliminated from playoff contention, the Bengals have the advantage of 10 days of rest since a 27-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Plus, Cincinnati’s last two home games have resulted in a 13-13 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and a 21-19 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There’s little motivational aspect involved within this game for the Bengals with one exception.
"Just pride, man," Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "You play for pride at this point in the season when you have the type of record we have."
One common trait of teams holding the Bengals’ lowly status is an unpredictable nature.
The Ravens should probably expect the unexpected.
"I don’t know if they’ll throw caution to the wind," Harbaugh said. "If there’s a chance to make a play doing something special, you try it. I don’t think teams button it down when they are trying to get in a playoff situation per se, but we’re going to get the best Bengals. I know that."
With Palmer under center in the first meeting, the Bengals only generated 154 yards and eight first downs as Johnson caught just one pass for 22 yards. with their lone touchdown coming on a fumble return off a Ray Rice fumble.
This time, the Bengals will have to protect backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with rookie left tackle Anthony Collins since Levi Jones isn’t expected to play due to a back injury. And Cincinnati is missing its top two defensive ends, Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker, as well as starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Nonetheless, the Bengals aren’t planning on rolling over and playing dead.
"They ain’t going to just come in here and think that it’s going to be easy," Bengals offensive guard Bobbie Williams told Cincinnati reporters. "If they do, then they’re going to be in for a rude awakening. Plain and simple."
After traveling to Cincinnati, the Ravens’ path to the playoffs gets much tougher. They face three teams with winning records over the final month of the regular season, including the Washington Redskins (7-4), the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) and the Dallas Cowboys (7-4).
One game behind the Steelers in the AFC North title race, the Ravens can’t afford to relax against a team it’s expected to handily beat.
"What do we have to be concerned about?" linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Losing. If you don’t show up, they’re going to beat you. Wins are very hard to come by, so this is no easy task. We’ve definitely got to show up for this rivalry game."Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.