A brilliant afternoon from kicker Justin Tucker paved the way for Baltimore’s 19-14 win over the flailing Bengals (3-7-1). Here’s what we learned from Sunday’s pivotal victory for the Ravens (6-5):
1. Tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North, Baltimore’s playoff hopes rest on a rough-and-tumble defense that made life hell for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Sunday. The NFL’s second-ranked unit shut down passing lanes, pressured the pocket and clogged up a Bengals backfield that couldn’t run the ball when it mattered. It was wild to watch the Ravens tip four of Dalton’s final nine attempts before Elvis Dumervil’s strip-sack of the signal-caller ended the game with a minute-plus to play. Ravens fans were also treated to a pair of strip sacks from the ageless Terrell Suggs, whose eight takedowns leads the team heading into Week 13.
2. Call Justin Tucker what he is: Baltimore’s unquestioned MVP in 2016. While Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed his third PAT in two weeks, Tucker immaculately pegged field goals of 52, 54 and 57 yards before the break — making him the first player in NFL history to hit three kicks of 50-plus yards in the first half of a game. Worth every penny (and more) of his four-year, $16.8 million deal, Tucker’s money-in-bank leg has repeatedly saved this touchdown-averse offense. Sunday’s heroics made Tucker a perfect 27-for-27 on field goals and 14-14 on PATs on the year.
3. At 3-7-1, Cincinnati’s season is over. Who to blame? Let’s start with a shaky offensive line that struggled to open holes in the run game and botched a snap to Dalton that wound up in the arms of Dumervil. Sunday was another reminder that wideout A.J. Green fits the mold of Dave Dameshek’s “Jenga Theory” to a tee. Without Green in the lineup, Cincy’s offense lacked any semblance of a true downfield element.
4. Baltimore’s second drive was tainted by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Ravens receiver Steve Smith. The veteran pass-catcher was flagged for jumping to his feet and using the crown of his helmet to knock Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict to the ground. Smith was understandably piqued about Burfict tossing him to the ground on the play, but it was hardly a poised response.
5. More balance on offense is critical if the Ravens plan to keep pace with the explosive Steelers. Baltimore’s schedule down the stretch includes Miami, New England, Philadelphia and a critical showdown with Pittsburgh before facing the Bengals again in the regular-season finale. Not an easy slate.