What to watch for in Ravens vs. Bengals on Thursday

The ramifications of last season's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals took on many different forms in the kaleidoscope of Week 17 possibilities.

It went down in the annals of NFL history as the game that officially annihilated the Buffalo Bills' 18-year postseason drought. A game that percolated inklings of coach John Harbaugh's firing by Ravens ownership after another postseason nevermore. A game that might have preserved the Marvin Lewis era in Cincy. A game that offered one of 2017's most thrilling finishes while conjuring an opportunity for Ravens revenge in 2018.

For a matchup greatly flavored by recent history, it isn't teeming with potential major consequences. As much as a Week 2 contest is capable of determining, it could reveal a lot about potential playoff hunt trajectories as both clubs try to claim the early high ground in the AFC North. Joe Flacco and the underrated Ravens receiving corps embarrassed the Bills in Week 1, while Andy Dalton and the Bengals tail-whipped the Indianapolis Colts last week in the Andrew Luck comeback game. Both teams definitely earned their Week 2 prime-time slot as they seek to break their 22-22 all-time series deadlock.

Here are five things to watch for during Thursday's game between the Ravens and Bengals, which will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network:

1. Are the Ravens' wide receivers for real?

It's hard to understate how well Baltimore's wideouts played last week. Granted, Buffalo's secondary looked a bit washed out in the soggy conditions, but the offseason acquisitions of Willie Snead, John Brown and Michael Crabtree made Joe Flacco look very elite. The trio collectively hauled in 10 passes, with Snead snagging 49 yards and a touchdown on four catches and Brown tallying 44 yards and a TD on three catches.

A big reason for the their success? Separation. They towered over the league average of 2.76 yards of receiver separation in Week 1, with Brown (4.72), Crabtree (3.44) and Snead (3.29) using their speedy skill sets to maximum effectiveness. Outside the numbers, Flacco simply looked comfortable and in rhythm with his wideouts -- a talking point for Ravens coaches and teammates during training camp and the preseason.

Will they cause havoc for a Bengals secondary that gave up 305 passing yards to a very one-dimensional Colts offense last week? Whatever happens, it's hard to fathom this unit regressing to anything near the 29th-ranked passing offense that hobbled Baltimore last year. Time will tell if outgoing general manager Ozzie Newsome has finally found a group of receivers capable of complementing the range of Flacco's talents -- and a strong performance Thursday will put the rest of the AFC on red alert.

2. Is Joe Mixon a premier running back in the making?

Grandiose predictions about Joe Mixon's sophomore season are about as common as Jalen Ramsey's hot takes, but the Mixon prognostications probably will be right. Mixon looked impressive against the Colts, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries while catching five passes for 54 yards.

The Bengals really need someone to balance the offensive attack, and they didn't use a second-round pick on Mixon to see him replicate his rookie numbers. The last time the Bengals had a rushing game that caused fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators, quarterback Andy Dalton had the best year of his career -- 2015, when Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard collectively grinded out 1,524 yards.

Still, let's call out the obvious by invoking our inner Lloyd Bentsen in recognizing the Colts' defense really can't be compared with the Ravens' defense. If Mixon has a strong game against the Terrell Suggs and the rest of his merry troupe of quarterback crushers, it'll go a long way in crowning him the running back king of the division until Le'Veon Bell returns from exile. We might get a more definitely answer Thursday as to whether Mixon deserves to draw comparisons to Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley or if he's merely just an above-average back in the Dalton-led offense.

3. Will the Ravens' front-seven repeat dominant ways?

That crazy old diamond that is the Ravens' pass rush made mincemeat out Buffalo's inexperienced quarterbacks and very experienced running back in Week 1. It was an all-around strong performance for a defensive unit that slipped a little -- especially against the run -- in 2017.

The D-line performed admirably against the Bills, with tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce shutting down the inside. Brent Urban was a constant presence off the edge and linebackers Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Za'Darius Smith were pressuring quarterbacks and running backs all afternoon.

Will a defense that tallied six sacks and two interceptions against the Bills make an encore against the Bengals? Cincinnati's offensive line should provided a tougher challenge, but it's hard to imagine the Ravens' front seven being tamed less than a week after their dominant showing.

4. Who will win QB duel: Joe Flacco or Andy Dalton?

The budding resurrection of the Ravens' passing game is promising, but Dalton still has a better chance at keeping the scoreboard operator busy. Bengals star wideout A.J. Green will find it easier exploiting the weakest part of the Ravens' defense with Jimmy Smith not playing because of suspension. Dalton also will have reliable targets in Mixon and tight end Tyler Eifert.

Outside of his top receivers, Flacco won't have the benefit of rookie tight end Hayden Hurst, who's still out with a foot injury.

The real wild card is John Ross. The anticipated emergence of the former first-round pick seems like a never-ending storyline, a legend born out of a combine record coupled with the desire to see a new NFL star emerge. The Bengals sophomore showed flashes of his game-wrecking potential in the preseason, but will we see it Thursday?

5. Can Alex Collins spearhead running attack?

The Ravens suffered a significant blow to their rushing game last week when Kenneth Dixon suffered a knee injury. With Dixon being stowed away on injured reserve and out until at least midseason, Alex Collins will have to prove he can lead Baltimore's rushing attack.

Collins has been here before. Dixon missed the entirety of last season because of injury and suspensions, which gave Collins the opportunity to churn out 973 yards and six touchdowns. While Collins likely was going to share carries with Dixon and Javorius Allen this season, it looks like Harbaugh will reprise Collins' 2017 role for another season.

The third-year pigskin hauler from Arkansas said before the season he wanted to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He'll get his first real chance to start that journey Thursday.

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