The first game of Week 11 pits the Baltimore Ravens against the Cincinnati Bengals. Baltimore took home the first matchup earlier this season, prevailing 27-24 in Cincinnati. Joe Burrow wasn't fully healthy for that game, and the Bengals will surely be looking to prove that they own this matchup when everybody's at full strength.
Both teams are coming off of dispiriting losses last week, with the Ravens blowing a big lead against the Browns and the Bengals falling to the Texans. With the AFC playoff picture so crowded, every win counts, and division games take on added importance.
Which of these AFC North rivals will prevail? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
When the Bengals have the ball
The Bengals are coming off a somewhat disappointing performance against the Texans wherein they turned the ball over twice, took four sacks, had three drops, and could not find much success on the ground. Unfortunately, as a follow-up to that performance, they have to face one of the best defenses in the league -- and a defensive coordinator who in his short time in the role has given Joe Burrow and Co. some problems.
Burrow has yet to average more than 6.5 yards per attempt in any game against Mike McDonald's defense. His career average is 7.4 per attempt. He's yet to throw for more than 222 yards despite having a career average north of 274 per game. His completion and touchdown rates are lower against Baltimore these last two seasons as well, and it's not just about the game where he was playing hobbled earlier this season.
McDonald has had a pretty consistent formula in these games: Very little blitzing (11.6% blitz rate is the highest, per Tru Media) and lots of zone coverage (75% or more in three of four games). Basically, the Ravens want to make Burrow continually throw underneath routes to matriculate the ball downfield. They are willing to bend as long as they don't break, and that has mostly worked out for them.
Making things more difficult for the Bengals on Thursday night is that they will again be without Tee Higgins, while depth receiver Andrei Iosivas is out as well. Baltimore most likely won't have Marlon Humphrey, which could open some things up for Ja'Marr Chase and/or Tyler Boyd (Humphrey tends to spend a decent amount of time in the slot), but it's reasonable to expect the Ravens to heavily roll coverage in Chase's direction given the absence of the team's other top target, all but begging Burrow to run the pass offense through Boyd, Trenton Irwin, and the tight ends and running backs.
Baltimore's pass defense has been elite this season, checking in second in FTN's DVOA. The one relative weakness has been on throws to players lined up in the backfield (25th); but despite playing more passing-down snaps, Joe Mixon has arguably been less involved in the pass game this year than ever before. (His 17.4 receiving yards per game are a career low.) If the Bengals are to find success through the air, it's likely going to be with Chase going alpha mode, or with Burrow dicing the Ravens up in the exact way they dare him to.
Mixon hasn't been any more impressive as a runner this season than he was during his down 2022 campaign that led to an offseason of rumors that he'd be released. He is again at just 3.9 yards per carry, and his success rate is actually down several percentage points. The Ravens have a top-10 run defense, so it's tough to see Cincy making much hay by leaning on the ground game.
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When the Ravens have the ball
As on the other side of the ball, this matchup features an excellent defensive coordinator scheming against one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson has faced Lou Anarumo eight times, going 6-2 while completing 123 of 201 passes (61.1%) for 1,420 yards (7.1 YPA), 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions, while also rushing 77 times for 523 yards (6.8 per carry) and two scores. Earlier this year, he went 24 of 33 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, chipping in 54 yards on 12 carries.
Some of Jackson's success against the Bengals came earlier in his career, when the team was not as good. He was less prolific in the teams' 2022 meeting (19 of 32 for 174 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 12 rushes for 58 yards), as well as in 2021 (15 of 31 for 257 yards and a score, 12 rushes for 88 yards). But those Bengals defenses were better than this year's version. The Bengals lost both of last year's starting safeties in free agency and have an inexperienced secondary, but they've actually been even worse against the run (29th in DVOA) than the pass (12th).
The Bengals have allowed 2.03 yards before contact per rush so far this season -- the second-worst mark in the league ahead of only the Broncos. They also haven't been very good tacklers, and have allowed a ton of yards after contact. That plays into Jackson's hands as one of the most elusive runners in all of football, but it could also be a boon for explosive undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell. Head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week that it was a mistake not to have Mitchell more involved during the team's loss against Cleveland on Sunday, and that they'd rectify it beginning Thursday night.
Anarumo has generally tried to mix up strategies against Jackson to keep him off balance. There were two different games where he blitzed on more than 50% of Jackson's dropbacks, and another where he sent just 8.1% of them. He's played as little as 13.8% man coverage and as much as 43.4% man. Interestingly, the only game where Cincy got a non-trivial number of sacks on Jackson was a game where the Bengals sent pressure just 23.8% of the time. There's no real telling how Anarumo will approach the situation; he tends to design bespoke game plans to throw opponents off, it's part of why he's had so much success.
When Jackson looks downfield, he'll find some favorable matchups. The Bengals rank 30th in DVOA on throws to tight ends this season, and Mark Andrews is one of the game's best. They're seventh against No. 1 wideouts but just 19th against No. 2s, so depending on who Cincinnati treats as the top receiver, there could be an opportunity for either Zay Flowers or Rashod Bateman to go off as well.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Bengals 17
Baltimore comes into this game healthier on offense than Cincinnati, and with more advantageous matchups given each team's style of play this year. The Ravens also have home field advantage, so we tend to lean in their direction.
If you want a more analytical approach to your NFL picks, then I highly suggest that you check out the SportsLine Projection Model, which has been on fire this year. Check it out if you want to know which side to bet for every game in Week 11.