Joe Flacco Ravens
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked 48 times and tossed 22 interceptions in 2013, but an improved offensive line could change the passers fortunes this season. Reuters

Despite three straight trips to the playoffs in his first three seasons, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hasn’t led his team past the Wild Card round and has failed to win a game in Baltimore. Sporting a fresh six-year, $115 million contract, the 26-year-old can start getting both of those proverbial monkeys off his back Sunday when the Bengals face the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Dalton and star receiver A.J. Green nearly ended the Baltimore drought last season, after Green snagged a tipped 51-yard Hail Mary from Dalton in the end zone to send the game to overtime. But the Ravens pulled out the 20-17 victory.

Guiding the team to an 11-5 record and its first AFC North title in four years, Dalton wound up with career-highs in passing yardage (4,293) and touchdowns (33), with help from a defense that was fifth against the pass and rush, and third overall. The Bengals also fielded one of the most balanced pass rushes in the league last year, with seven players totaling at least 3.0 sacks.

Cincinnati’s defense is likely to repeat that top-notch performance, even with some players leaving. The Bengals failed to re-sign versatile defensive end Michael Johnson and took a minor hit in the secondary with cornerback Brandon Ghee heading to San Diego. Still Cincinnati retains its solid corps along the defensive line in Geno Atkins, edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry, and 2013’s tackle leader Vontaze Burfict as the top linebacker.

That group will be largely responsible for taking down Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco. Last year the Ravens offensive line surrendered 48.0 sacks, fourth-worst in the league, and the reigning Super Bowl MVP heaved a career-high 22 interceptions. The Ravens fell to 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

Flacco should have better protection this season, even with right tackle Michael Oher moving on to Tennessee. Left tackle Eugene Monroe had a full training camp with team, 6-foot-5 330-pound tackle Kelechi Osemele is healthy after missing nine games last season, and the Ravens also traded for and signed center Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay. Zuttah hasn’t missed a start the last two years.

The Ravens offense will miss Ray Rice for the first two games of the season, after the running back was suspended by the league following his guilty plea to domestic violence charges earlier this year. Head coach John Harbaugh will instead turn to third-year back Bernard Pollard, who totaled 426 yards at a 2.9 yards per-carry clip last season and suffered a concussion during the preseason.

Though if Pollard or the o-line struggles, Flacco does have new veteran receiver and former Carolina Panther Steve Smith at his disposal. After a messy public divorce with the team that drafted him in the third round in 2001, Smith enters the season as the Ravens No. 2 receiver behind Torrey Smith. Despite running through myriad inconsistent quarterbacks, the 35-year-old has amassed seven 1,000-yard seasons and 67 career touchdowns.

Baltimore didn’t experience a bad defensive year, but gravitated more towards the middle. The Ravens defense finished 12th overall last season in total defense, including 12th against the pass and 11th versus the run. They let go of corner Corey Graham, who led the squad with four interceptions in 2013, and safety James Ihedigbo, but still have talented young corners Ladarius Webb (22 passes defended, 2 INTs in 2013) and Jimmy Smith (15 PDs, 2 INTs). Baltimore also lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones to Indianapolis, but retain Haloti Ngata up front, with linebackers Terrell Suggs, 2013's leading-tackler Daryl Smith and heralded rookie C.J. Mosley controlling the middle.

Time: 1 p.m. EST

TV Channel: CBS

Betting Odds: Baltimore -1

Over/Under: 43 points

Predicted Score: Ravens 23, Bengals 20