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Ravens' McGahee, Bengals' loss of Henry are key factors

These two division rivals split their games last year, with both home teams winning. The marquee matchup when Baltimore and Cincinnati meet is the high-powered Bengals offense against the Ravens' signature defense. When the Bengals beat the Ravens, it is through the air, and when they lose, it's because their receivers can't put up the big numbers.

In the Bengals win last year, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh teamed up for 18 receptions for 197 yards and a score. In the loss, the two wideouts had only 7 receptions for 97 yards. The No. 1 defense in the league last year, led by Ray Lewis, is not going to let the Bengals establish a running game. Last year Rudi Johnson didn't have more than 18 carries in either game and averaged about 3.7 per carry.

On the other side, the Ravens parted ways with Jamal Lewis and replaced him with Willis McGahee, who they expect to be more explosive and capable of big runs. That's just what this team needs against a Bengals defense that ranked 30th in the league last year in total defense. The challenge for the Ravens will be to keep the Bengals from getting an early lead and forcing Baltimore to abandon the run.

Key matchups

1. OLB Terrell Suggs vs. OT Levi Jones:
There are a lot of good pass rushers on the Ravens defense, even with Adalius Thomas gone to the Patriots. Jones won't get any help against Suggs, and with the Bengals probably throwing the ball upwards of 35 times, Jones will have to shut him out. Last year, the Ravens sacked Palmer four times.
2. CB Samari Rolle vs. WR Chad Johnson:
Carson Palmer would prefer to attack Rolle instead of Chris McAlister on the opposite corner. Johnson is a the big-play threat, and Rolle needs help from the safety against him. There are a few formations and plays that will leave Rolle on an island, and he must respond. Johnson averaged 15.7 per catch last season, and there's no doubt Palmer will go deep a half-dozen times when he gets this matchup.
3. NT Kelly Gregg vs. OC Eric Ghiaciuc:
These are two unsung players, but one has to establish the line of scrimmage. Gregg is critical to the Baltimore 3-4 front. His production will not show up in tackles, sacks and pressures, but he needs to beat Ghiaciuc for the defense to feature Bart Scott and Ray Lewis.
4. TE Todd Heap vs. S Dexter Jackson:
Formations and personnel groups can put Heap on a safety very easily. Heap caught 73 passes last year. In the game the Bengals lost to Baltimore, he averaged more than 20 yards per reception, and in the game they lost he managed just 7 yards per catch. Jackson has second-year linebacker Rashad Jeanty in front of him, so it falls on the shoulders of Jackson to coral Heap.
5. OT Jonathan Ogden vs. DE Justin Smith: Ogden is not 100 percent, but whether he plays or not, the Bengals need Smith to generate a pass rush. Last year against the Bengals, QB Steve McNair threw the ball 74 times and wasn't sacked once. If McNair gets time to throw the Bengals will struggle.

If you like the Ravens, this will help your argument

1. The Ravens had the No. 1 defense in the NFL last year and were tops in sacks and interceptions.
2. Ray Lewis is playing, and no team has had a 100-yard rusher with Lewis in the Ravens' defensive lineup in 15 games.
3. Seven of the Ravens' defensive starters have been to a Pro Bowl.
4. Baltimore led the NFL in the turnover ratio last season at plus-17.
5. Steve McNair was tied for the fewest sacks in 2006 with 14.

If you like the Bengals, this will help your argument

1. The Bengals have defeated the Ravens four of the last five times they've met.
2. Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson touched the ball 37 times for 144 yards against Baltimore in 2006.
3. The Bengals have not lost a September game since 2004.
4.Willis McGahee gained only 35 yards on 14 carries this preseason in Baltimore.

When the Bengals have the ball

Marvin Lewis, his quarterback and the Bengals coaching staff realize the best way to defeat Baltimore is through the air, so I expect much more passing than running. The earlier the Bengals can take a lead, the sooner they will force Baltimore into a one-dimensional pass attack.

However, one of the problems the Bengals offense will face is the absence of WR Chris Henry. He caught only two passes against the Ravens last year, but his presence in the three-receiver package prevented the Ravens from over-playing Chad Johnson. Now that Henry is serving a league suspension, Baltimore can use some high-low coverages on Johnson, as well as some trail coverage.

Palmer can't afford to sit back and wait for Johnson or Houshmandzadeh to get open. Last season, the Baltimore defense collected four sacks on Palmer, or one every 12 pass attempts. It might help the Cincinnati offense to work the tight end into the passing game. Last year, Bengals tight ends accounted for just one reception in the home-and-home series.

When the Ravens have the ball

The Ravens know the Bengals run defense is suspect, and they will spend lots of time working the inside run game. Such a gameplan attacks a Bengals weakness and keeps Palmer & Co. on the sideline longer. With the arrival of Willis McGahee from Buffalo, Ravens coach Brian Billick should be ready to pound the ball at the Bengals defense. The Ravens finished their 13-3 season a year ago with three games with the kind of rushing totals we should expect this year -- 356 yards in three games (118.6 per game). I expect close to 30 touches and more than 100 yards of offense for McGahee in this game.

If the Ravens fall behind and have to throw, they could struggle. WR Mark Clayton will be playing on a sore ankle, and most coaches I talked with say QB McNair doesn't have the deep ball he once had and rarely runs the way he used to. McNair would much rather hit a checkdown route than take off. The Bengals may play more coverages that ignore McNair the runner by having the defensive backs turn their backs to the quarterback and shadow the routes, with two-deep coverage behind them.

The bottom line

Recent history says Palmer will throw 32 passes for 280 yards and defeat the Ravens in a relatively low-scoring game. Until I see Cincinnati demonstrate that it can absorb the loss of its suspended players, I think I'll pick Baltimore to win this game, 21-17.

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