If it seems like it's been ages since the Ravens and Bengals last faced each other, that might be because, well, it has been. As the result of a scheduling quirk, the teams met in Week 1 and then not again until this weekend's season finale.
A lot has happened in between.
The Ravens' started 9-2 but then suffered through a rash of injuries and a three-game losing streak. The Bengals were 3-5 halfway through their season but have since won six of their past seven.
The preseason optimism that accompanies every team out of training camp ultimately was validated, as both teams clinched playoff berths. But the Ravens secured the AFC North title thanks in large part to their 44-13 romp over the Bengals on Sept. 10. When the teams meet at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, there are many reasons to think the rematch will be much different. Here are five of them:
1. No Lardarius Webb.
The Ravens had their No. 1 cornerback in the first meeting, but he's out with a knee injury, and the nickel back situation has been in flux for a while. Now the job of containing Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and the rest of the Bengals' passing attack falls on Cary Williams and Corey Graham, who has emerged as a solid starting cornerback, as well as Chykie Brown, who has emerged as the top nickel back. In the first meeting, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was 22-for-37 for 221 yards, and Green had five catches for 70 yards.
2. Deep to return the kick, Jacoby Jones.
It seems almost hard to believe that the Ravens began their season with someone other than Jacoby Jones handling kickoff and punt returns. But rookie Deonte Thompson had all four kickoff returns against Cincinnati in Week 1, and Lardarius Webb and Jones each had one punt return. After Thompson fumbled a kickoff at Kansas City, Jones took over that job, and with three touchdown returns (2 kickoff, one punt) this season, he has taken that job all the way to the Pro Bowl.
3. New looks at linebacker.
When the Ravens took the field against Cincinnati in Week 1, Jameel McClain and Ray Lewis were the starting inside linebackers. It's likely that neither will play this time around. McClain (neck) is on injured reserve, and Lewis (triceps) has been activated from injured reserve and is listed as probable but is not expected to play. Dannell Ellerbe, Josh Bynes and Brendon Ayanbadejo have taken on much larger roles as inside linebackers.
4. The emergence of Vontaze Burfict.
In Week 1, Burfict was still viewed as a rookie project that the Bengals basically took a flyer on, signing him as an undrafted free agent after his draft stock plummeted because of disciplinary concerns from his time at Arizona State. Burfict played in Week 1 but had no tackles. He became a starter for the Bengals in Week 3 and now leads the team with 151 tackles.
5. Despite what the coaches say, this game doesn't matter as much.
Neither team wanted to begin the season with a loss. Neither team wants to end the season and enter the playoffs with a loss. But with both teams' playoff spots secure, they can approach the game differently. It won't exactly be a preseason game, but keeping players healthy for the playoffs could play a role in personnel decisions. It wasn't like that in Week 1.