The regular season wasn’t supposed to end like this for the AFC North’s top two teams.
Had Week 17 gone (more than) a little differently, Sunday’s showdown between the 11-4 Bengals and 10-6 Ravens in Cincinnati could have seen the two squads playing in a winner-take-all game for the divisional crown, with red-hot Cincy boasting a puncher’s chance of earning the top seed in the entire conference.
Instead, the Ravens can’t catch the Bengals and are playing strictly for wild card positioning, needing a win plus a Chargers loss later in the day to Denver to move up to the fifth seed. As for the Bengals, they’ve been on an emotional roller coaster ever since Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on Monday night in the first quarter of Cincinnati’s home game against Buffalo, which has now been canceled outright after initially being suspended.
So, are you ready for some football? Is anyone?
If a poll of NFL players were taken, I suspect the answer would be a resounding “no.” Despite the fact that Hamlin’s condition has improved considerably since he had to be resuscitated on the gridiron after tackling Tee Higgins, it’s safe to assume that no team has fully regained its emotional or psychological equilibrium since witnessing the Bills defensive back lose consciousness.
But there are times in everyone’s life when they must answer a bell, punch a clock, or strap on a helmet with an animal painted on it when they don’t want to, and Sunday will be one of those occasions.
Ravens’ divisional games tend to go under
This week, OH Bets asked Jay Kornegay, the SuperBook’s vice president of race and sportsbook operations, if his trading team, in setting its Week 18 lines, took into account the emotional toll that Hamlin’s hospitalization might have taken on the Bengals.
“We briefly discussed it, but it’s really hard to handicap something like that,” he replied. “It’s very difficult to handicap some type of emotion because it could go in either direction. They could be emotionally charged or emotionally drained.”
One senses that Hamlin regaining consciousness and the ability to communicate has to help the Bengals move on from what transpired on Monday. Either way, the Bengals were unanimously listed as 7-point favorites against the Ravens late Thursday by six different mobile Ohio sportsbooks, each of which had set 40.5 as the point total for the game.
All of those books offered -110 action on the spread save for FanDuel, which posted a price of -114 on the Bengals to cover and -106 on Baltimore to lose by less than 7. As for the total, the books were again largely in lockstep at -110, although BetRivers appeared to want action on the under at -109 while offering -112 on the over.
That’s an interesting position to take, since, according to BetRivers, each of Baltimore’s last six games against AFC North opponents has gone under the point total.
Bengals backers looking to bet Cincy on the moneyline would be best off taking advantage of BetRivers’ -315 price, while bettors who think an upset is in store should wager on the Ravens +265 at Betfred.
Different Cincy team since first meeting
The Ravens prevailed in the first meeting between these two teams back on Oct. 9, winning 19-17 on a last-second field goal by near-lock future Hall of Famer Justin Tucker. The Bengals seemed to be suffering from a Super Bowl hangover at the time, but have recovered and then some, winning nine of the 10 games — including seven in a row — they’ve completed since.
As for the Ravens, they’ve done an admirable job in the absence of quarterback Lamar Jackson, with Tyler Huntley and, to a far lesser extent, Anthony Brown piloting the team to a 3-2 record in the games Jackson has missed. As of Thursday, Jackson, who’s recovering from a sprained knee, hadn’t practiced in over a month, making his “questionable” tag for Sunday’s game seem rather optimistic.
Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson did not practice again today due to his sprained PCL, and it now has been over one month since he last played or practiced.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 5, 2023
Huntley, who’s grappling with wrist and shoulder issues, has been limited at practice all week and is also questionable for Sunday’s tilt. Should neither he nor Jackson be good to go, coach John Harbaugh will likely put the ball in third-stringer Brown’s hands to start the game.
The two teams’ defenses are similar — stingy against the run and somewhat porous against the pass. But on offense, they’re polar opposites, with the Ravens ranking second in the league in rushing and 29th in passing, and the Bengals ranking 26th in rushing and fourth in passing. Taken as a whole, this dynamic would seem to favor Cincinnati.
What coulda been
Had the Bengals-Bills game been played to completion on Monday, the playoff stakes heading into this weekend would be crystal clear. But because the game will not resume and the Bengals and Bills will both end up playing 16-game seasons, the postseason picture is murky at best.
If 13-3 Kansas City — beaten by both the Bengals and Bills this season — defeats Las Vegas on Saturday, Bengals fans will have no cause to grouse about whether the team could have somehow earned the top seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. But if the Chiefs lose and Cincinnati beats the Ravens, a win over Buffalo could have put the Bengals in pole position, as they would have held the tiebreaker over both Buffalo and K.C.
Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer