- Associated Press - Saturday, September 6, 2014

BALTIMORE (AP) - The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens begin a new regular season the same way they ended the last one: facing each other in a meaningful AFC North duel.

When these longtime rivals last met, the Bengals ushered the Ravens out of the playoff picture with a 34-17 victory. It was a crushing blow for the defending Super Bowl champions, who missed the postseason for the first time in six seasons under coach John Harbaugh.

The Bengals advanced as division champs, but after another first-round exit they return in 2014 with new offensive and defensive coordinators. Also, they’re starting a rookie center in Russell Bodine, and rookie running back Jeremy Hill takes over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was released.


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Otherwise, Cincinnati invested heavily in keeping the team intact for a postseason that consists of more than just one game.

“That’s the main thing that everybody is talking about right now,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Until we win one, people are going to keep saying that we haven’t done it and we can’t do it. That’s definitely a goal of this team.”



The Ravens’ objective is to simply get back into the playoffs. After going 8-8 last year, Baltimore hired former Houston head coach Gary Kubiak as its new offensive coordinator and signed free agent Steve Smith to augment the receiving group. The Ravens went 4-0 in the preseason, but this is the first game that counts since that lamentable finale last December.

“We always feel pretty confident, but they got after us a little bit last year and we didn’t play very well in that final game,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I think we’re ready to go. It’s the beginning of a new year. That’s going to be the start of it this Sunday.”

A few things to know about the Ravens-Bengals matchup:

HOLD THE RICE: Ravens running back Ray Rice begins his two-game suspension for domestic violence and will be replaced by Bernard Pierce, who makes his second NFL start. Pierce hits the hole quicker than Rice, which might be beneficial in Kubiak’s aggressive attack, but the absence of Rice leaves inexperienced Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro as the backups.

“I have a lot of confidence in them, obviously in running the ball, but even more so in standing back there and protecting and doing all the things that don’t quite come as naturally for those guys,” Flacco said.

CENTER OF ATTENTION: Bodine’s first NFL game offers him the two-pronged challenge of going up against Pro Bowl tackle Haloti Ngata in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.

“He’s big, strong guy,” Bodine said of the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Ngata. “He’s kind of crafty. He’s good at reacting to blocks and countering off stuff. It’s all about me. I have to go out there and handle my technique and my responsibilities and my calls.”

Bodine, a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina, started all four preseason games.

SIGNIFICANT SMITHS: The Ravens have four Smiths on the roster, every one of whom will serve a key role.

This marks the Baltimore debut of 35-year-old Steve Smith, who starred for 13 seasons with Carolina.

He will line up with Torrey Smith, a deep threat who averaged 17.4 yards per catch in 2013.

On defense, middle linebacker Daryl Smith led the Ravens in tackles last year and cornerback Jimmy Smith will start on the opposite side of cornerback Lardarius Webb.

DEALING DALTON: Two weeks into the preseason, the Bengals signed Dalton to a contract extension that runs through the 2020 season.

Now it’s time to start earning the dough, in a game against a team he’s struggled to beat. Dalton is 0-3 in Baltimore and threw four interceptions in that finale in Cincy last year.

“The Ravens have been good for a long time on defense,” Dalton said. “They have a really good scheme with really good players. They present some challenges.”

OPENING ACT: Baltimore has won eight consecutive home openers, six under Harbaugh.

Cincinnati believes it can end that string because it considers itself to be the better team.

“We know that if we play with good technique and no mental errors that we should win the game,” cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones said. “Regardless of what anybody says, we have the best team in the division. Period. Point blank. As long as we all are looking at the same things, it’s going to be a good year.”

___

Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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