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MNF Preview - Ravens vs Bengals

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Ravens, Bengals, Renew AFC North Rivalry

by: MySportsbook.com

(My Sportsbook) - There will be no regular season grace period preceding one of 2007's most important battles for AFC North supremacy, as the division favorite Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals meet in a Week 1 clash at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night.

The contest, the first of two Monday night tilts on the Week 1 NFL docket, pits the division's two most recent champions against one another.

The Ravens stormed through the North at 13-3 a season ago, with that performance marking a seven-game improvement over 2005's 6-10 campaign. Brian Billick's club would lose to eventual Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis in the Divisional Playoff round, a defeat that has given Baltimore a collective sense of purpose heading into 2007.

The Bengals, meanwhile, will be trying to improve upon last year's disappointing 8-8 ledger. One season after going 11-5 and winning the North for the first time ever, Marvin Lewis' squad experienced a topsy-turvy campaign that ended with a three-game losing streak to end the year and leave Cincinnati out of the playoff bracket.

The Bengals have finished 8-8 in three of their four seasons under Lewis, and are still seeking the organization's first playoff win since 1990.

SERIES HISTORY

Baltimore leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 13-9, including a home- and-home split last season. The Ravens earned a 26-20 win when the teams met at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 9, and were 13-7 losers at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 13. Cincinnati has won four of the last five matchups with Baltimore overall, including the last two in the Queen City. Baltimore last won in Cincinnati in 2004.

Billick is 10-6 against the Bengals as a head coach. Cincinnati's Lewis is 5-3 against both Billick and the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

The most notable change to the Baltimore offense as 2007 begins comes in the backfield, where former Bills two-time 1,000-yard rusher Willis McGahee (90 rushing yards, 6 TD with the Bills) takes over for the departed Jamal Lewis. McGahee, the No. 23 overall pick in the 2003 Draft was obtained in a trade with Buffalo on March 9th and is expected to boost a running game that ranked just 25th in the league a year ago. Joining McGahee in the backfield will once again be Steve McNair (3050 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT), who was solid in 2006 and is expected to take a positive step forward in year two running Baltimore's offense. McNair's main triumvirate of targets - wideouts Derrick Mason (68 receptions, 2 TD) and Mark Clayton (67 receptions, 5 TD) along with tight end Todd Heap (73 receptions, 6 TD) - all return. Up front, the right side of tackle Adam Terry and guard Chris Chester begin their first full season as starters.

McNair will be looking to attack a Cincinnati defense that was tied for last in the league against the pass last season and ranked just 30th overall. There have been significant changes within the linebacking corps, where second-year- man Ahmad Brooks (31 tackles, 1 sack) begins his first season in the middle and Rashad Jeanty (59 tackles) has earned a starting role on the strong side. Up front, second-year man Domata Peko (43 tackles, 2 sacks) takes over at one of the tackle slots, and will try to bolster a front four that features Robert Geathers (42 tackles, 10 sacks) and Justin Smith (81 tackles, 8 sacks) as the club's best pass rushers. The secondary has not changed much from last season, though second-year corner Johnathan Joseph (57 tackles) is in line for a full- time starting role and 2007 first-round Draft choice Leon Hall (Michigan) is expected to assist in a reserve capacity. The Cincinnati defense came within 61 seconds of posting a shutout against the Ravens in last year's 13-7 Bengals victory.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

The strength of the Bengals remains the passing game, which features elite talents in quarterback Carson Palmer (4035 passing yards, 28 TD, 13 INT) and wideouts Chad Johnson (87 receptions, 7 TD) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (90 receptions, 9 TD). Palmer bounced back from a serious knee injury to eclipse the 4,000-yard passing plateau last season, and was one of four players in the league (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Jon Kitna) to reach that level. Johnson was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl last season, and Houshmandzadeh went over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Former No. 3 receiver Chris Henry will miss the first eight games of the season while serving an NFL suspension. The running game will once again be headed up Rudi Johnson (1309 rushing yards, 12 TD), who has gone over the 1,300-yard mark in three straight campaigns. The Bengal offensive line was banged up throughout the preseason, though left tackle Willie Anderson (foot) and right tackle Levi Jones (knee) are both expected to be in uniform on Monday.

Palmer and company will be facing a Baltimore defense that has a slightly different look to the one it saw last season, as Pro Bowl outside linebacker Adalius Thomas has taken his skills to New England. Fourth-year man Jarret Johnson (22 tackles, 2 sacks) is the new starter on the strong side, and will combine with middle man Ray Lewis (103 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT) and weak side backer Bart Scott (103 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT) to make up a solid group of linebackers. The pass rush is once again led by ends Terrell Suggs (64 tackles, 10 sacks) and Trevor Pryce (47 tackles, 13 sacks), who were productive throughout last season. The secondary remains among the most feared groups in football, with cornerbacks Chris McAlister (47 tackles, 6 INT) and Samari Rolle (52 tackles, 3 INT) in charge of the receivers and safeties Ed Reed (59 tackles, 5 INT) and Dawan Landry (69 tackles, 5 INT, 3 sacks) lending help over the top. As a team, the Ravens ranked first in the league in total defense and takeaways (48) last season.

FANTASY FOCUS

Fantasy managers who chose Palmer, Chad Johnson, and Houshmandzadeh early in their drafts can't be too pleased to see Baltimore on the Week 1 schedule, since the Bengals offense is unlikely to run at an optimal level against Ray Lewis and company. If you have viable backup alternatives to any of the above, you might want to consider inserting them before lineups are due on Sunday. The Baltimore defense is always a good start because of its ability to force turnovers, but offensive principles McNair, McGahee, Mason, and Clayton are a riskier play. Better bets for Baltimore are Heap, who always contributes a few catches, and kicker Matt Stover, who is automatic from 45 yards and in.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Most of the Bengals' problems in 2006 concerned a hit-or-miss defense, which was capable of an occasional stifling performance but more often than not was anemic in all phases. Cincinnati sought to address those struggles in the offseason, but did it do enough? Figures like Brooks, Jeanty, Peko, and Hall should help in the long run, but those youngsters aren't likely to do much to frighten McNair, who has a year under his belt in the Baltimore offense and has a better running back setting up behind him in McGahee. The Ravens' defense, meanwhile, is still the Ravens' defense, even without the omnipresent Thomas. Even in a hostile environment, look for Baltimore to keep Cincinnati at arm's length throughout and emerge from the Queen City with a victory.

My Sportsbook Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 16

September 7, 2007, at 02:11 PM ET


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