Ravens painted as “dirty” AFC North villains after Bengals game

Ravens. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Ravens. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

The Cincinnati Bengals were not happy about the Baltimore Ravens’ extremely physical game plan in Week 18, but the Ravens have nothing to apologize for.

Any divisional rivalry is bound to boil bad blood, and the Ravens-Bengals game on Sunday turned into a feisty showcase in which aggression and physicality trumped talent and skill.

Many Bengals players expressed their discontent in the locker room after their win, telling The Athletic’s Jay Morrison that they don’t have “respect for some [Ravens players]” and that they were going to remember all the “dirty hits.”

As the Ravens and Bengals prepare for a tense rematch next Sunday, it’s difficult to draw the fine line between what is physical and what is dirty.

The Bengals’ biggest strength in 2022 is their passing attack spearheaded by Joe Burrow and his elite trio of skilled and speedy wideouts. Rather than let Burrow walk all over them like last year, the Ravens fought fire with fire, employing their own biggest strength: a tough and hard-hitting defense.

Sans Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ most effective brand of football is a gritty and defensive one, and they ramped up the physicality against Cincinnati while still playing a clean game.

Only two personal foul penalties were called in Week 18, both of which were on the Bengals; by contrast, the Ravens had five penalties for 22 yards.

The referees did miss a blatant facemask on Joe Burrow and perhaps a few other personal fouls (that Kyle Hamilton body slam on Ja’Marr Chase was a big boy hit), yet for the most part the Ravens’ play leaned more toward “intentionally physical” than “outright dirty.”

Ravens played a physical, not dirty, game against the Bengals in Week 18

Take this Roquan Smith bump into Chase in the end zone — is that really a dirty play? Smith clearly meant to knock Chase off guard a bit but calling it dirty is a stretch, especially considering much worse plays like when Patriots’ Mac Jones went for Bengals cornerback Eli Apple’s legs in a previous game.

To use school playground terminology, yes, the Ravens did start it. They entered the game knowing it would turn into a blowout if they didn’t inject an extra dose of aggression in their defense, and every play, every hit, every bit of trash-talk carried an air of chippiness with it.

Nastiness? Not so much.

Roquan Smith’s combative antics are comparable to that of Bengals’ Jackson Carman, who at one point rammed Ravens linebacker Tyus Bowser into the sidelines and set off a scrum. Hostile tempers flared on both sides, but there was nothing inherently dirty or cheap about the play.

When Bengals offensive lineman Alex Cappa got injured late in the game, the Ravens were hardly at fault. If Cincy wanted to prevent injuries, the team should have rested its starters as Baltimore did.

Other Cincy players — Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins — absorbed hard hits throughout the game which were borderline penalties and could have been flagged. Even then, one could argue for both sides.

When the teams meet again in the Wild Card round, Cincy may harbor a personal vendetta against Baltimore, but the Ravens will keep playing to their strengths as they have done in the final stretch of the season.

Compared to other divisional rivalries, this current era of the Ravens-Bengals rivalry still feels fairly fresh in NFL history and has coincided with the growing dominance of each franchise’s quarterback throughout the years. Lamar Jackson had his MVP year in 2019; Joe Burrow won Comeback Player of the Year last season.

No doubt Burrow’s 525-yard, four-touchdown performance of 2021 still burned in the backs of Ravens’ minds on Sunday. Contrary to ESPN’s Bart Scott’s opinion, though, the Ravens did not go head-hunting for Joe Burrow nor any other Bengals player for that matter.

Week 18 represented a scrappy game in which the Ravens squeezed lemonade out of what they had: a hard-boiled defense that needed to make up for the shortcomings of a second-string offense.

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If that means a bullish hit here and there, so be it. But don’t call it dirty.