NFL Preview - Cincinnati (9-3) at Minnesota (10-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Cincinnati Bengals are one win away from hopefully putting a reputation of ineptitude, failure and off-the-field issues behind them; a victory that will give the club just its second playoff berth in 19 seasons.
The Bengals shoot for that prized win this Sunday against a Minnesota Vikings club that is also aiming to secure a playoff spot, but that will also be trying to rebound from a disheartening loss last weekend to the Arizona Cardinals.
Cincinnati heads to the Metrodome with a 9-3 mark, good for a three-game advantage over both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens entering this week's play. Thanks to a 6-0 divisional record, the Bengals can claim the AFC North with a win on the field this weekend or by setbacks by both the Steelers and Ravens.
Cincinnati has already secured just its second winning record since 1991, with the last coming in 2005, when the Bengals went 11-5 and won their first division title since 1990.
In addition to their perfect divisional record, the Bengals have won all three of their meetings with NFC North opponents this year. They won in Green Bay (31-24) on September 20 before home victories over Chicago (45-10) on October 25 and Detroit (23-13) last Sunday.
Although the Lions scored the game's first touchdown in the opening quarter, the Bengals responded with 17 points in the second to move ahead for good. Cincinnati went run-heavy after that, getting 110 yards on 36 carries by a returning Cedric Benson, who had missed the team's last two games due to a hip injury.
Quarterback Carson Palmer finished 17-of-29 passing with 220 yards, a touchdown throw and two interceptions, while Chad Ochocinco nabbed nine catches for a season-high 137 yards with a score in Cincinnati's second straight win and fifth in six games.
The victory also tied head coach Marvin Lewis with the legendary Paul Brown for the second-most wins in franchise history with 55.
The Vikings (10-2) can also secure a spot in the playoffs with a victory on Sunday, and a win coupled with a Green Bay loss would hand Minnesota its second straight NFC North title. But first the Vikings will need to put last Sunday night's 30-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals behind them.
Everything that had gone right for the Vikings throughout this season went wrong in Arizona. Their high-scoring offense couldn't keep up with Cards quarterback Kurt Warner, who threw three first-half touchdown passes. Meanwhile, running back Adrian Peterson was held to just 19 yards on 13 carries, his lowest total since a 14-carry, three-yard performance as a rookie on December 9, 2007. Quarterback Brett Favre upped his season interception total from three to five with a pair of second-half picks.
And while Favre and Peterson, who miss practice time this week due to nagging foot and ankle issues, will get a chance to rebound on the field, linebacker E.J. Henderson will not. One of Minnesota's defensive leaders, Henderson suffered a broken left leg in the loss and underwent season-ending surgery on Monday. He needed to be carted off the field and will be replaced in this game by rookie fifth-round draft choice Jasper Brinkley.
Favre did throw for 275 yards and two touchdowns, finding tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and wideout Percy Harvin for scores.
The Vikings had a four-game winning streak broken, losing for the first time a 27-17 setback to Pittsburgh on October 25. That was also the only other time this season that Minnesota failed to score at least 27 points before this past Sunday, with the team having outscored its opposition 98-29 over the previous three games.
Minnesota has won all six of its home games this year and 12 of its last 13 at the Metrodome.
The all-time series between the Bengals and Vikings is knotted, 5-5, with Cincinnati evening the series by notching a 37-8 home victory in the last meeting, in 2005. The Vikings won the previous matchup, a 24-3 affair at the Metrodome in 1998. The Bengals are 0-4 at the Metrodome all-time, and home teams are 9-1 in series contests.
Lewis is 1-0 all-time against the Vikings, while Minnesota's Brad Childress will be meeting both Lewis and Cincinnati for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati continues to conform to the AFC North mold, as its offense is now one that does most of its damage on the ground. Thanks to the emergence of Benson (969 rushing yards, 6 TD), the Bengals rank sixth in the NFL with 133.9 rushing yards per game. Benson, who is 31 yards shy of his first-career 1,000 rushing season, took 36 of the team's 44 carries versus the Lions, but with Minnesota's bruising defense, backup Larry Johnson probably figures to get more than the two carries he took last week. Benson became the third different Cincinnati running back to run for 100 yards a week ago, as Johnson and Bernard Scott had done so the previous two weeks. Scott is likely out for this game, though, due to a toe injury that held him out versus Detroit has well. Should the Bengals' ground game stumble versus the Vikings, then Palmer (2547 passing yards, 16 TD, 10 INT) and Ochocinco (62 receptions, 6 TD) will need to shoulder the load. The two hooked up for a 36-yard score last week, and Ochocinco is now 90 receiving yards short of reaching 1,000 for the seventh time in his career. Palmer, meanwhile, has nine touchdown passes versus the NFC North in 2009. Wideouts Laveranues Coles (33 receptions, 3 TD) and Andre Caldwell (39 receptions, 3 TD) will also need to produce if the run game can't get going.
The fact that the Bengals rely so much on the run should play right into the hands of the Vikings, who are allowing just 84.2 yards per game on the ground. That is ranked third-best in the NFL. Benson and Johnson will have a hard time running up the middle with 311-pound Kevin Williams (25 tackles, 6 sacks) and 317-pound Pat Williams (38 tackles, 2 sacks) manning the interior of the defensive line. Going to the outside on ends Jared Allen (38 tackles, 12.5 sacks) and Ray Edwards (41 tackles, 6.5 sacks) isn't much easier, either. However, the loss of Henderson (83 tackles, 2 sacks), who led the team with 10 tackles versus the Cardinals, is a big one and fellow linebackers Chad Greenway (71 tackles, 2 INT) and Ben Leber (29 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will have to step up to help the rookie Brinkley. Minnesota's secondary has also been hit by injuries, as Pro Bowl corner Antoine Winfield (30 tackles, 1 INT) has missed the last six-plus games with a foot injury and his return date is unknown. Also, safety Tyrell Johnson (48 tackles, 1 INT) left Sunday's game with a concussion and could sit out this contest. Minnesota ranks just 21st versus the pass (227.2 ypg) and saw Cardinal wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin combine for 15 receptions, 241 yards and three scores last Sunday night.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota and its second-highest scoring offense (29.9 points per game) will look to get back on track after struggling last weekend. Peterson's performance was most concerning, but being behind by 17 points heading into the fourth quarter took the playmaking back out of the game. However, it is also true that the Cardinals made stopping Peterson (1103 rushing yards, 12 TD) a priority and Favre (3149 passing yards, 26 TD, 5 INT) couldn't take advantage in the second half. The 40-year-old quarterback was also sacked three times to up his season total to 25, which ranks 10th in the NFL. Wide receiver Sidney Rice (63 receptions, 1036 receiving yards, 4 TD) continues to be one of Favre's favorite targets, as he made seven catches for 72 yards, but his longest reception was only 14 yards. Still, he went over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career and leads the NFC in that category. Harvin (48 receptions, 6 TD) ended with six catches for 79 yards, and both he and Shiancoe (40 receptions, 9 TD) have made a touchdown catch in three games in a row. Harvin also leads all NFL rookies with eight touchdowns, thanks to the two he has returned on kicks.
Peterson may have some additional room to get back on track, as the Bengals' second-ranked run defense (81.8 ypg) will be without defensive tackle Domata Peko (23 tackles) for another couple of weeks due to arthroscopic knee surgery that he underwent on Monday. Peko, who joins defensive end Antwan Odom (Achilles) on the sidelines, had started 43 games in a row before missing the Detroit game. The Bengals signed defensive tackle Shaun Smith, who played with the club from 2004-06, on Wednesday to help fill the hole left by Peko. Defensive end Jonathan Fanene (25 tackles, 5 sacks) got into the scoring act on Sunday, taking an interception back 45 yards for a touchdown, his first career pick-six. Safety Tom Nelson (7 tackles, 1 INT) also had an interception versus the Lions, while linebacker Dhani Jones (80 tackles, 3 sacks) and defensive ends Robert Geathers (30 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Michael Johnson (15 tackles, 2 sacks) all had sacks. Jones was also one of three Bengals players to notch a team-high eight tackles. In addition to its great work versus the run, Cincinnati ranks fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game (293.2), while its 15.6 points allowed per game is tops in the league.
Benson has been one of the top fantasy backs this season and don't let this tough matchup fool you. Cincinnati will stay committed to the run as long as it can, and Benson is averaging 96.9 yards per game. That includes a pair of 100-yard rushing games versus a defense also known for its ability to stop the run: the Baltimore Ravens. However, Palmer and Ochocinco could get some opportunities this weekend due to Minnesota's strong run defense. Kicker Shayne Graham, who hit on all three of his field goal tries last week, is a perfect 3-for-3 between 40-49 yards this year. Cincinnati's defense should actually be avoided because of Minnesota's ability to put up points.
Peterson also draws a tough matchup and last week's performance was discouraging, as it may have given the Bengals a blueprint on how to shut him down. However, with fantasy playoffs set to begin, now isn't the time to sit the running back. Favre will also be looking to bounce back this weekend and could be in line for a good game, while Rice, Harvin and Shiancoe have been scoring at too fast a pace to ignore. Kicker Ryan Longwell is a gamble, as his 20 field goal attempts are ranked 17th in the league. Minnesota's defense is actually a solid play, as the Bengals don't score very many points per game.
Both teams should be charged up for this game with playoff spots on the line. But while the Bengals' division crown is basically a formality at this point, the Vikings are two games back of New Orleans for the top seed in the NFC. Hence, they can ill-afford a loss to the Bengals this weekend. Minnesota seems to be a team built to beat the Bengals. It can take away the club's biggest weapon, the run, and score points at a pace Cincinnati might not be able to keep up with. Palmer and company have run a high-octane offense before, but will likely have trouble keeping pace with Favre and company in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 28, Bengals 17
12/10 17:57:43 ET