1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Bengals -3, Over/Under: 50.5
Two of the National Football League’s brightest young Quarterbacks square off in the Queen City, as the surprising Cincinnati Bengals play host to the inconsistent Los Angeles Chargers, from Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. While both teams are very much in the mix of contending in stacked divisions, the Chargers (6-5, T-2nd in AFC West) are certainly looking the worse for wear at the moment, having now dropped four of their last six outings since a torrid 4-1 start to the campaign. Perhaps we were all a bit hasty in prematurely crowning Los Angeles as the primary challenger to the Kansas City Chiefs’ reign over the AFC West, and though they may very well end up filling that role, there is no doubt that they have found themselves stuck in a rut. So, what in the name of Lance Alworth is going on with the Lightning Bolts, you ask? Well, it appears that their fortunes changed after a wild, 47-42 shootout with the Cleveland Browns, in which (Head Coach) Brandon Staley’s charges were absolutely torched for a total of 531 yards, exposing some serious flaws in their personnel and scheme. Since that point, they’ve gone 2-4 with opponents scoring 29.5 points per game on 332.2 total yards, and while that yardage may not seem like an outrageous figure, the run defense is getting absolutely pummeled to the tune of 135.0 yards on 4.1 yards per attempt. As a result, the Chargers consistently find themselves in short yardage situations on third down, which has been by far and away their biggest problem in 2021. On the season, Los Angeles ranks next-to-last in third down defense (48.9%) and during this particular stretch have seen that number rise over 54.0%, including nearly 57.0% on the road. Simply put, they can’t get off the field, with the opposition averaging 3:06 and 35.1 yards per drive, ranking thirtieth and twenty-ninth overall. Then again, their struggles against the run are nothing new, for even during their hot start they were permitting yards wholesale on the ground, for no team has relinquished more rushing yards this season than the Bolts at 145.3 yards on 4.7 yards per carry (29th Overall). The difference though, was that Staley’s troops were forcing turnovers through those first five games, logging seven takeaways during that stretch in comparison to just five over the course of their last six games. Conversely, the offense has been forced to operate with more of a sense of urgency and taking reckless chances, which is evidenced by a 7-5 turnover ratio in that period, consisting of all but five of the turnovers that they’ve committed this year. And it’s with that said that last weekend’s 28-13 loss at the Denver Broncos served as a perfect example of what has been ailing them. The hosts owned the first half, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in chewing up fifty and seventy-five yards respectively, while the visiting side was forced to punt on three of their first four drives before finally getting on the board before intermission with a 12-yard touchdown pass from (Sophomore Quarterback) Justin Herbert (66.0%, 3,230 YDS, 6.73 NY/A, 24 TD, 10 INT, 66.0 QBR) to (versatile Tailback) Austin Ekeler (186 TCH, 1,077 YDS, 5.8 Y/T, 14 TD). Instead of building momentum in the second half, the Chargers completely imploded, as their opening 11-play drive ended with (Kicker) Dustin Hopkins missing a 52-yard field goal, while another 11-play drive was snuffed out as (Broncos Cornerback) Patrick Surtain II intercepted Herbert just outside the red zone. After Denver responded with a touchdown to extend their lead to 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Surtain returned to torment Herbert once more, this time picking off the young signal-caller and taking the football seventy yards to the house, effectively killing off the contest altogether. In the end, Herbert was 28-of-44 for 303 yards with two touchdowns and interceptions apiece, marking the sixth and seventh interceptions thrown during this slide, while the defense allowed 147 rushing yards and two scores on thirty-three carries and 8-of-11 on third down. By the end of the day, Los Angeles found themselves in a veritable three-way tie for second place within the AFC West, while barely holding onto the seventh and final Wild Card in the AFC. With six games left in the schedule, they will face each of their division brethren along with what figures to be easier matchups against struggling sides the likes of the New York Giants and Houston Texans. However, they’ll have to solve the ascending Bengals first, whom they’ve faced twice over the last three years, winning both contests including last year’s season opener 16-13 at SoFi Stadium. In a game that was very much a festival of field goals, the hosts managed to rally back from a 13-6 deficit with ten unanswered points in the fourth quarter, as Herbert looked on from the sidelines, not knowing that he would be making his first career start in the following week. Of course, today’s matchup features Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and Joe Burrow (more on him shortly), who was the top pick of that draft class. Both Quarterbacks have proven to be revelations for the franchises that drafted them, and figure to keep growing along with their respective teams in the future. This current stretch aside, the reigning 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year has been very good this season, even if the new offensive staff appears to still be getting acclimated to his considerable skillset. (Offensive Coordinator) Joe Lombardi arrived from years in New Orleans, and you can see that imprint all over the offense, particularly with the vast multitude of sub-packages diversifying the attack. With that said, the Saints’ offense was tailored to the skillset of the venerable Drew Brees, who with all respect is the complete physical antithesis of Herbert. At a sturdy 6′-6″, 237 lbs. and armed with a cannon for an arm with impressive mobility, the 23-year-old leads the NFL in QBR (66.0), game-winning drives (5), and fourth quarter comebacks (5), and is still only scratching the surface of his lofty potential. Essentially, Lombardi should let his Quarterback downfield more often, instead of focusing so much on the short-to-intermediate rout tree and maximize his mobility with more RPO (Run-Pass Option), which is something that he couldn’t do with the aging Brees. This matchup should serve as a showcase for the future of the league, which will soon be saying goodbye to some longtime stalwarts at the position, which appears to be in very good hands.
Meanwhile, arguably the most pleasant surprise in the NFL this season has been the Bengals (7-4, 2nd in AFC North), who after suffering five consecutive losing campaigns and finishing in the basement of the AFC North in each of the last three years suddenly find themselves in contention for what would be their first division title since 2015. Indeed, (Head Coach) Zac Taylor was in dire need of showing some form of improvement in 2021 after going a miserable 6-25-1 (.187) in his first two seasons with Cincinnati, who gave him the dreaded public vote of confidence at the conclusion of the previous campaign. Then again, this has long been one of the most patient franchises when it comes to their coaching staffs (see Marvin Lewis’ tenure), and it appears that that patience has indeed paid off as this young corps of talent has propelled them ahead of schedule. Of course, the obvious talking point has been the growth of (Sophomore Quarterback) Joe Burrow (69.3%, 2,835 YDS, 7.10 NY/A, 22 TD, 12 INT, 51.2 QBR), who was selected No. One Overall in the 2020 NFL Draft after a watershed Heisman campaign at LSU in 2019. Making his professional debut against the Chargers little under fifteen months ago, Burrow fearlessly kept the Bengals in many games before ultimately tearing his ACL ten weeks into his rookie campaign. After months of rehab, the 24-year-old has clearly put that setback behind him, flourishing in a suddenly diverse offense that is flush with weapons; rather than add a quality pass-protector with their first pick in last Spring’s Draft, Cincy opted to reunite Burrow with his favorite target from Baton Rouge, selecting (explosive Wideout) Ja’Marr Chase (50 REC, 906 YDS, 18.1 Y/R, 8 TD) with the fifth overall pick. Simply put, this was a masterstroke from management, for Chase has been nothing short of a playmaker for the stripes; a COVID opt-out in 2020, the 21-year-old quelled any concerns of his drops during training camp, hauling in thirty-five receptions on fifty-one targets for 754 yards and six touchdowns over the course of the first seven games. Though he’s cooled off a bit in recent weeks, the focus of the attack has shifted to the ground game where (Tailback) Joe Mixon (208 CAR, 924 YDS, 4.4 Y/A, 11 TD) has really turned it on of late, rushing for 288 yards and four touchdowns over the last two games. A diamond in the rough over the last four years, Mixon has already rushed for a career-high eleven touchdowns and is on pace to surpass his previous career-high of 1,168 yards set during his sophomore campaign. After trouncing the Las Vegas Raiders for 123 yards and two scores on thirty carries in a 32-13 victory two weeks ago, he came back and hung a career-high 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 41-10 drubbing of bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Similar to a 41-17 thumping of the Baltimore Ravens back in late October, Taylor’s charges set out to make a statement against the traditional division powerhouse, dismantling the reigning AFC Champions with shocking ease last Sunday; Cincinnati scored on each of their first four possessions, three of which were touchdowns, while picking off (Steelers’ Quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger twice during the first half, with (veteran Cornerback) Mike Hilton (37 TKL, 6 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 2 PD, 1 TD) returning the second pick twenty-four yards to the house right before intermission to take a commanding 31-3 lead. In the end, the hosts held decisive advantages in a slew of categories, including first downs (25-16), total yards (370-301), rushing yards (198-51), turnovers (1-3), and time of possession (35:20). Burrow efficiently completed 20-of-24 passes against a depleted Pittsburgh defense for 190 yards and a touchdown and interception apiece, with (Sophomore Receiver) Tee Higgins (43 REC, 560 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 3 TD) reeling in six receptions for 114 yards and a score. Furthermore, the home side’s defense continued its upward trajectory, tormenting Roethlisberger throughout the afternoon, picking him off twice and sacking him on three occasions, one of which resulted in a fumble. Having already bested them at Heinz Field back in late September (24-10), this latest win marked the first time since 2009 that the Bengals completed the season sweep of the Steelers, serving as further proof of their growth and maturation. And speaking of growth and maturation, the defense has quietly improved exponentially this season, with (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo’s troops proving to be greater than the sum of their parts despite possessing no big names. Cincy has allowed just 20.5 points per game (6th Overall) on 348.2 total yards (13th Overall), including just 93.7 yards against the run (4th Overall), while logging a respectable twenty-eight sacks (11th Overall). Defensive Ends, Trey Hendrickson (24 TKL, 7 TFL, 17 QBH, 10.5 SK, 3 FF) and Sam Hubbard (47 TKL, 11 TFL, 12 QBH, 7.0 SK, 2 FR, 3 PD) have been consistent threats off the edge, particularly the former who arrived via free agency from New Orleans, while (Linebacker) Logan Wilson (89 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 4 INT, 4 PD) has emerged as a playmaker in the middle of the field with team-highs in both tackles (89) and interceptions (4). Currently a game behind Baltimore in the division and in possession of the first Wild Card in the conference, Cincinnati faces a terribly difficult stretch to end the campaign, and will be given every opportunity to prove how much they have grown; after today’s meeting with the Chargers, they will host the San Francisco 49ers, Ravens, and Chiefs, with road games at the Broncos and Cleveland Browns, which equates to an opponents’ win percentage of .582, the second-highest of any team in the league at the moment. While they’ve proven that they’re capable of ousting the likes of the Ravens and Steelers, this is also a team that has suffered disappointing losses to the likes of the New York Jets (34-31) and Chicago Bears (20-17), giving further credence to the belief that while they’re close to being contenders, they just aren’t quite mature enough yet. Whether you’re a believer in these Bengals or not, these next six games will ultimately decide just how much they’ve grown, and if they’ll count themselves as part of the playoff field for the first time in six years.