|Bengals brace for Flacco, Ravens in season opener|
While the Baltimore Ravens will have several of their key playmakers back in the lineup, the Cincinnati Bengals are short-handed when the AFC North rivals meet in the season opener Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is expected to start after missing the entire preseason with a back injury. The Ravens also will have receiver Breshad Perriman and running back Danny Woodhead back in the lineup.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are trending in the other direction.
Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones are serving suspensions. Promising Bengals rookie receiver John Ross also is out with a knee injury.
Despite those losses, Cincinnati remains the favorite and has not lost to Baltimore at home since 2011.
"It is a tough place to play, and they are a good football team," Flacco said. "They have been a good football team for a lot of years now. You guys have seen it. We have a tough time winning there."
The biggest question facing Baltimore is Flacco, who crammed an entire training camp and four preseason games into one week of practice. He has traditionally struggled in Cincinnati, posting a 2-6 mark with five touchdowns and 12 interceptions over his career.
Much of Flacco's success could hinge on the Ravens' offensive line, which has also been hampered by injuries and the sudden retirement of center John Urschel on the first day of training camp.
However, six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley are expected to play. This should give Flacco more time to throw downfield and also help Baltimore's running attack.
The Ravens will unveil some playmakers they added in the offseason, including receiver Jeremy Maclin and Woodhead. Baltimore boosted its defense, ranked No. 1 through parts of the 2016 season, with the signing of safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr.
"It is their home opener," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They obviously have been preparing for this game ever since we played them last year. It is their home opener, and they want to start off good. Both teams want to start off good, but we are just going to have it out on Sunday."
The Bengals also have plenty of weapons.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has made big plays over the Ravens secondary to A.J. Green, who has caught 41 passes for 726 yards and six touchdowns in eight games against Baltimore. Green missed both games against the Ravens last season.
Tight end Tyler Eifert (knee) was limited in practice this week, but could be active for the game. Running back Giovani Bernard is fully healthy, but starter Jeremy Hill has been dealing with an ankle injury.
Cincinnati, however, will need to do a better job protecting Dalton, who was sacked 41 times in 2016. The offensive line took a hit with the departure of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler via free agency. Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and Trey Hopkins will try to fill the void, but they have combined for 16 starts in the NFL.
Dalton said protecting the ball will be key against the Ravens' aggressive defense.
"One thing is you can't turn the ball over," Dalton said. "Turnovers usually decide the game. Other than that, you've got to hit big plays on them. That's one thing we've been able to do in some of the games we've won. When we needed to make a play, we made it, and it allowed us to score in the fourth quarter to win."
The teams split their regular-season meetings last season, with the home team winning each time.
"Ironically, we are playing the team we ended with last year," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They're a very strong football team that's put together well. They're familiar, but they have new players as well."