This week’s Thursday night matchup is for early sole possession of first place in the AFC North. After both missing the playoffs in 2017, the Ravens and Bengals both got their seasons started on a high note. The Bengals won on the road in a game down to the wire, but the Ravens overcame sloppy conditions and completely dominated the Bills in their home opener. While much maligned, Andy Dalton is a significant upgrade to Nathan Peterman, so it will be interesting to see how the talented Ravens defense responds to the test.
After a strong finish to 2017 and a solid preseason, Joe Flacco didn’t disappoint in the Ravens season opener. With a revamped receiving corps, the threat of Lamar Jackson behind him and in a contract year, there are plenty of incentives for Flacco to keep the performance level up. The Bengals allowed 319 passing yards last week, but most of the damage was done underneath as Andrew Luck had 53 pass attempts. In the passing game, that could bode well for the pass catching back Javorius Allen and tight end Nick Boyle.
With Vontaze Burfict out, the Bengals struggled defending tight ends last week so Boyle could make for an interesting option in deep fantasy leagues. 16 of Flacco’s week one throws went to his trio of new receivers: Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. For fantasy purposes, Brown might be the best play as he’s certain to have some volume, and is the big play threat of the bunch. Crabtree could very well lead the team in targets, but for fantasy players his production of late has been touchdown dependent. If facing off primarily against William Jackson‘s coverage, Crabtree is worth keeping on the bench this week. Snead should see some targets from the slot, but is more of a wait and see option for fantasy games.
Due to the game getting out of hand early, Alex Collins had limited attempts in week one, but should see his normal volume on Thursday. The Ravens offensive line is an improvement from the Colts line the Bengals saw last week, so don’t let that yards per carry numbers scare you. With the normal 15 to 18 touches, Collins should be a solid RB2 in fantasy leagues.
Dalton was efficient this past week at the helm for the Bengals, but the real offensive star of the game was Joe Mixon. One of my predicted breakout running backs in 2018, Mixon showed he could handle every-down back usage, and racked up yards on the ground and through the air. While the Ravens defense is a tougher test, Mixon’s projected volume should keep him locked in all fantasy lineups. Giovani Bernard expected to play a role in the Bengals backfield, but if Mixon keeps this up Bernard becomes more of a roster stash.
While the Ravens secondary more than held their own with Jimmy Smith suspended last Sunday, the Bengals receiving corps is of a vastly different caliber to that of the Bills. One of the league’s premier receivers, volume will certainly work in A.J. Green‘s favor as he’s certain to see at minimum seven or eight targets. He should obviously be started in all fantasy formats. The rest of the Bengals wideouts are questionable to use from a fantasy perspective, but will have an impact in the game.
Despite the ability to play at a very high level, the Bengals have been cautious with Tyler Eifert to try and keep him healthy. Eifert should see some targets, but it could be awhile before he’s playing more than half the team’s snaps. It’s only a matter of time before John Ross is rattling off big plays, but it’s too tough to count on currently. Tyler Boyd should see a handful of targets, however looking at the matchup it’ best to seek other alternatives.
With both teams having plenty of defensive talent, I could see this being a grind it out game that comes down to the very end. The Bengals made a point of improving their offensive line this offseason, but the right side is still vulnerable. With the talent to attack that weakness, and what seems to be an improved passing game, I’m going with the Ravens in this one. My prediction is Ravens 21 Bengals (+0.5) 17.