On Thursday night, the Bengals were on the verge of blowing a 21-point advantage, but held on for an important divisional 34-23 win that pushed their record to 2-0 and gave them a lead in the AFC North -- a lead that they'll hang onto until at least Week 3.
Four days after Rodgers led the Packers to , the Ravens had their chance to one-up the Packers. Against the Bengals, the Ravens fell into an early 21-0 hole, but proceeded to slowly claw their way back into the game. Getting plenty of help from the Bengals along the way, the Ravens took two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward, two steps back, and another step forward again until they nearly ran down a team that was just asking to get caught. In the end, they just couldn't make up enough ground in time because they're not a good enough team to do something like that.
At halftime, they trailed 28-14 after scoring a last-second touchdown before the break. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, they trailed by 11. With under 10 minutes remaining in the game, the deficit shrank to five points. But that's when progress stopped. The Bengals offense finally pieced together a fourth-quarter drive, kicking a field goal to put themselves up by eight points after draining six-and-a-half minutes before letting their defense feast on a quarterback who struggled for the entirety of the night.
Flacco isn't Rodgers, and the Bengals' defense got a stop the Bears' defense couldn't:
The Bengals would kick a field goal to put away the game and they walked away with a win that should've been a blowout, but turned into a nail-biter. But it's a win nonetheless.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green combined for three touchdowns. Dalton threw four touchdowns in all. The Bengals defense put the Ravens in a hole early with a couple stops and an interception. After looking like Elite Joe Flacco against the Bills, Joe Flacco went back to looking like Normal Joe Flacco. He threw an early pick that put the Ravens in an initial hole, threw another pick in the second half, fumbled away the Ravens' last chance late in the game, and was quite frankly lucky to finish the night with only those three turnovers.
Week 2 is only just beginning, but in a 17-week season, divisional showdowns in the NFL can often feel like playoff type of games regardless of when they're written into the calendar. The two teams don't like each other. Both entered the game with 1-0 records. Don't be surprised if they're fighting each other for a wild-card spot come December. Again, it's early, but considering both teams are situated in the same division as the Steelers, who somehow tied the lowly Browns in Week 1, this was as big as Week 2 games get.
For a half, the Bengals looked like a legitimate threat coming out of the AFC. Dalton and Green were unstoppable. The defense made Flacco look like, well, Flacco. Their offensive line, bolstered by rookie center Billy Price (who left injured) and left tackle Cordy Glenn, protected Dalton. Joe Mixon looked electric at times. The defensive line, with Geno Atkins, Carl Lawson, and Carlos Dunlap, got after Flacco. And then, the Bengals went back to looking like just another team before barely hanging on for a win.
The thing is, there was enough there in the first half for the Bengals to be optimistic about their outlook. A 2-0 start matters. Even if the Steelers beat the Chiefs on Sunday, the Bengals will hold a divisional lead heading into Week 3. Nobody thinks the Bengals are a powerhouse, but the AFC is a conference that could send an 8-8 or 9-7 team as the second wild card. The Bengals are certainly in that mix along with the Ravens, and they just beat the Ravens. That matters. If the Steelers drop a losable game to the Chiefs and the Browns do what they normally do against the Saints, the Bengals will hold a 1 1/2 game lead over both those teams. That also matters.
From the other side of the field, it's difficult to be optimistic about these Ravens. Yes, they beat the Bills 47-3 in Week 1, but the Bills might be the worst team in football. After the first quarter, I was prepared to begin this article by pointing out how bad this Bills team must be if they lost by 44 points to these Ravens, but the Ravens managed to make the game competitive enough that they wiped away that version of the article. So, at least they've got that going for them.
For the zillionth time, it's only Week 2. It's still early for us to know that much about these teams. But the Bengals and Ravens were always supposed to be battling for a playoff spot, stuck in the same tier of middling AFC teams. The Bengals won that battle on Thursday night and in the process, they were the only team to show glimpses of greatness. The win matters. And the team we saw for the first 30 minutes might matter too.
Read on for seven more takeaways from the game.
1. Dalton and Green come out firing
Traditionally, primetime games are a nightmare for Dalton. The Bengals entered the night with a 5-14 record in primetime with Dalton as their quarterback, according to Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Somebody must've convinced Dalton that the night sky was nothing more than a mirage, because Dalton played out of his mind in the first half.
In all, he completed 24 of 42 passes for 265 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and an 107.7 passer rating. It wasn't all Dalton. The Bengals' offensive explosion was just as much about Green. By the 13:02 mark of the second quarter, Dalton and Green had already combined for three touchdowns, singlehandedly building a 21-0 lead.
Dalton's night got started with a near-pick in the end zone that was overturned after a brief review demonstrated that Eric Weddle's second foot stepped out of bounds, but he cashed in on the extra opportunity, getting the scoring started with a four-yard touchdown to Green.
Kudos to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor for the play-design. Obviously, the Ravens were going to be keyed in on Mixon, so Lazor went with misdirection off play-action. Dalton rolling out gave him way too much time to find an open target and let's face it, it's impossible to guard a receiver of Green's caliber for that long.
P.S. Steve Sarkisian might wanna steal that play for the Falcons.
On the next series, Dalton and Green hooked up again to extend the lead to 14 points with a tight-window throw in traffic that Green went up to grab before exploding for some serious YAC.
Back to the Falcons comparison:
AJ Green has scored 2 TDs inside the 10 yard line TONIGHT.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 14, 2018
Julio Jones has scored 2 TDs inside the 10 yard line... since the 2016 NFC Championship game.
The Bengals were absolutely rolling. That touchdown finished off a five-play, 80-yard drive.
After a quick stop, the Bengals got the ball back and started marching against the Ravens. They got some help along the way -- a Terrell Suggs penalty extended their drive in the red zone -- before Dalton and Green hooked up again for the first-half hat-trick.
Green had never caught three touchdowns in a single game before, but he needed 17 minutes to do it against the Ravens. Those were his only three catches of the game, by the way, until the final minute of the third quarter when he finally hauled in a catch that didn't result in six points. He finished with five catches for 69 yards. So, it was a pretty boom or bust night for Green, but there was plenty of boom.
The Ravens just couldn't stop the Bengals on third down. After they trimmed the lead to 14 points with a touchdown of their own, they let the Bengals drive right back down the field, converting a couple third-and-longs along the way, until Dalton threw his fourth touchdown pass of the first half. This one went to Tyler Boyd, who beat his man underneath in coverage and snuck into the end zone before the coverage over the top could get to him.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Thursday was the second time Dalton's thrown four touchdowns in a half and it was his first time doing so since the 2013 season. It'd be his last touchdown of the game, however.
At halftime, the Bengals led 28-14. It should've been 28-0, but the Bengals dropped two passes that should've been picked, which led to two Ravens touchdowns.
When the second half started, the Bengals lost all of their effectiveness. They couldn't really run the ball. Green stopped catching touchdowns. They let the Ravens back into the game. Luckily for the Bengals, the Ravens weren't at all efficient about their comeback, bumbling around until they somehow closed the deficit to five points. Finally, the Bengals' offense pieced together a drive -- the kind of drive the Bears' offense so desperately needed on Sunday night.
Up five, they took possession with just under 10 minutes to go. They didn't relinquish possession until they'd burned six-and-a-half minutes off the game clock and kicked a short field goal to extend their lead to eight points, which meant the Ravens needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to extend the game. Flacco fumbled instead, the Bengals kicked a field goal, and the game ended soon after.
2. Flacco's nightmare
Flacco usually hates playing in Cincinnati as much as Dalton hates playing in primetime. Before Thursday night, Flacco had thrown 19 touchdowns and 23 interceptions for a 72.3 passer rating in his career against the Bengals. His most-recent performance won't help those numbers.
Flacco finished 32 of 55 for 376 yards, two touchdowns, two picks, and a 76.0 passer rating. He was sacked four times and lost a fumble. He missed open receivers for most of the night. His most efficient method of attack was chucking deep balls downfield and hoping for pass-interference penalties. In the process he was fortunate the Bengals failed to catch two of those passes, with both of those dropped picks coming on drives that ended with Ravens touchdowns.
Not every Bengals defensive player dropped the ball. On the Ravens' second series, Jessie Bates picked off Flacco. According to NFL Research, only one quarterback, Eli Manning, has thrown more picks than Flacco since 2013.
By the end of the first quarter, Flacco had more sacks than completions.
Joe Flacco's troubles in Cincinnati continue. In the first quarter, Flacco has two completions while getting sacked three times. He now has thrown 14 career interceptions in 10 games at Paul Brown Stadium.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) September 14, 2018
Flacco's prayers were answered in the second quarter when his 45-yard floater to John Brown in triple coverage somehow wasn't picked, which led to the Ravens finally scoring on a Buck Allen touchdown run that pleased all of the Alex Collins Fantasy owners everywhere.
On the Ravens' second scoring drive just before halftime, a Flacco deep ball was dropped again by a Bengals defensive back. Four plays later, Flacco got bailed out by a ticky-tacky pass-interference penalty that netted 30 yards and set up the Ravens at the 1-yard line.
And that's when Flacco threw his first touchdown of the game. Give him some credit for eluding the rush -- which was in his face for most of the night -- and creating something out of nothing. If he gets sacked, the clock expires and the Ravens trail by 21 points at halftime. But Flacco didn't get sacked. He threw a touchdown instead.
The Bengals' drive chart in the second half looked like this:
But that didn't matter much when the Ravens' drive chart in the second half looked like this:
- End of game
Let's give the Ravens some credit for that touchdown, because it was special:
The Ravens had their chances to win this game, because the Bengals offense stopped moving the ball in the second half. But they lost because they don't have an offense that's good enough to do the kinds of things that Rodgers does. In that sense, this loss isn't entirely on Flacco. The way the defense started put the Ravens in a hole they were never going to climb out of. It's not acceptable to give up 28 points in one half.
But the Ravens deserve blame for not taking advantage of their many opportunities to get back into the game. The unfortunate truth is, with Joe Flacco they're not good enough to mount gigantic come-from-behind wins.
3. Bengals' defensive line is filthy
Again, don't just blame Flacco. He was under duress for much of the night.
It needs to be said that the Bengals' defensive front is scary and among the best units in the AFC. Atkins, Lawson, and Dunlap all got after Flacco. Atkins finished with two sacks, Lawson had one quarterback hit, and Dunlap had one hit and three batted passes. The Bengals' defense missed out on several opportunities to bring down Flacco, but they did force that final fumble in addition to a third-quarter pick.
They should continue to torment opposing quarterbacks in the games and
4. Bengals' backfield is a handful
Mixon might be the league's next great running back, but Giovani Bernard might be one of the best backups. Against a defense that ranked ninth against the run last season, Mixon rushed for 84 yards on 21 carries while Bernard went for 27 yards on six carries. Put together, the duo combined for 111 yards on the ground.
The Bengals' depth is important. It's important that they can use both backs at once and it's important because it gives them a decent insurance policy in the event Mixon goes down. He went down twice during the game with knee injuries, returning both times. His health is worth monitoring moving forward, but the Bengals can rest easy knowing that they have a dependable backup ready to shoulder the load.
5. Ravens lose C.J. Mosley to bone bruise
In the first quarter, three-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley got carted off with a knee injury. At halftime, the team announced that he suffered a bone bruise.
Since 2014, Mosley has missed only two possible games and he's racked up 332 solo tackles, eight sacks, and eight interceptions in that span. It's not just that he's important to the Ravens. 2018 is also the most important season of Mosley's career because he's scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason. The good news for both team and player is that they get 10 days off until their next game.
6. Bengals lose Billy Price to ankle injury
The Bengals also lost an important starter in the first half. Rookie center Billy Price left the game early on and was ruled out at the beginning of the third quarter with an ankle injury. He emerged out of the locker room wearing a boot.
Price, drafted No. 21 overall, was expected to upgrade an offensive line that ranked 24th as a run-blocking unit and 20th in pass protection last season, per Football Outsiders. Like the Ravens, the Bengals do at least get 10 days off until their next game.
7. What's next
No team enjoys the short week that comes with a Thursday night game, but the reward is a mini bye week. The Ravens (1-1) and Bengals (2-0) both won't play again until Sept 23, when the Ravens host the Broncos and the Bengals head to Carolina to take on the Panthers. Those are two winnable, but tough games against teams featuring tough defenses and potentially explosive running games.