With the talented but unsettled 4-9-1 Vikings finally hitting stride with a quarterback they believe in and the 9-5 Bengals trying to steady themselves for two final home games to decide their fate, Sunday's sellout at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) has the makings of straying from paper.
But the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is eschewing the rock that is Adrian Peterson and the scissor runs and returns of rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and sticking with paper in a unanimous nod to the Bengals to get to 10-5 and put all the heat on the Ravens in their home game (4:25 .m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Patriots.
Chris Mortensen, the ESPN insider who is on more TV shows than Betty White, is intrigued by the big picture for the Bengals in the AFC playoff picture. He thinks they're as good as any of them but just wishes they were consistent on offense. He thinks they will be Sunday.
Coley Harvey, Mortenson's colleague who covers the Bengals for ESPN.com, likes Cincinnati's resiliency after losses and its matchup against a defense giving up an average of 30 points per game.
Pat Borzi, a New York Times stringer based in Minneapolis for the past decade, has covered everything from Victor Kiam's Patriots to George Steinbrenner's Yankees, to the Olympics to the Vikings stadium intrigue. So Sunday is pretty clear cut. The Bengals need to win and the Vikings would like to win and if that's not enough in Week 16, he cites Minnesota's inability to make a late stop when it needs it.
Kevin Seifert, who roams the league as a writer for ESPN NFL Nation from Minnesota, covered the Vikings during nearly a decade at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and five years as the NFC North blogger and is impressed by the way Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier has kept it all together. But there's too much uncertainty around the club to pick the Vikings on the road against a team fighting for the playoffs.
Let's go around The Table:
The Bengals injuries on the offensive and defensive lines are something to keep an eye on because the key in any game, obviously, is running the ball and stopping the run. The biggest injury is the one keeping Kevin Huber off the field. How is new punter Shawn Powell going to do? He hasn't kicked in a game in more than two months. That's one of the biggest keys. Everyone around the team seems pretty high on him, so you'd imagine he'd do OK.
The Vikings are hot on offense and they've got some really good receivers. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson is going to be the one to watch and Adrian Peterson is going to play, so the backfield is impressive.
But for some reason this Bengals defense has been able to get it done even with Leon Hall and Geno Atkins down. They've lost their two best players and here they are competing against some really strong offenses. I'm expecting left end Carlos Dunlap and SAM backer James Harrison (concussions) to play and they should be fine.
The Vikings are better than their record, especially on defense. They're solid for the most part. They've given up their yards; they've given up their points just like last week. Even though they won the game they still gave up 30 points to the Eagles. That's probably been the key. Those big plays haven't gone their way. To the Bengals' credit they've been a big-play offense at times this year. They'll really need some of that in this game and I think that's where you'll see running back Giovani Bernard get going and where a guy like wide receiver Mohamed Sanu can have kind of a breakout game. Good defense doesn't translate to paper on how good they probably are.
With whom the Bengals have played the last few weeks, the Ike Taylors of the world, the Joe Hadens of the world, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has had his challenges. He actually performed pretty admirably last week against Taylor and he'll be able to take some of that going into this week and the challenge shouldn't be as great.
Honestly, I thought Andy Dalton played really well last week, given the conditions. The conditions were tough to manage. They didn't call too many deep passes so he didn't have to do a whole lot of that. But the chunk game, short-yardage game, he was dinking and diming. But they dropped a lot of passes. As long as guys catch the ball, Andy is going to be OK. His confidence right now seems to be pretty solid. They've got to get that run going, too. They couldn't get it going last week because they were down so much. If they can get out to a big lead, they get that run game going, Andy will be just fine.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 21-17. They're playing at home. I think it will be a fairly low-scoring game. The conditions could be rough and these defenses are pretty good. Minnesota is kind of underrated and Cincinnati is very good. I think we might see a little bit of an AFC North game as far as the physicality. And the Bengals are upset. They've shown this year they don't let the losing spiral into losing streaks. When they lose one they typically bounce right back and win the next game. I think they're a little upset the way things went in Pittsburgh.
The Vikings have got a weird dynamic going on there. The players are actually playing hard and they're doing better than they were, but the Vikings have already started looking around for the next coach. I think Leslie Frazier is beginning to realize that. There has been so much focus on the quarterback, but the thing everybody forgets is the reason they're in the spot they're in is because their defense was so bad for so long.
They allowed their core defense to get old. The guys they drafted to replace them, particularly in the secondary, have just not panned out. In the four losses they had, they gave up the winning points in the last minute and in the tie against Green Bay they gave up the tying points in the last minute. They're in the middle of the pack when it comes to scoring points. Their big issue to me is their defense hasn't been any good. A half-decent defense and we're talking about Sunday as a game between two playoff contenders.
Tackle Kevin Williams and end Jared Allen have each been to a bunch of Pro bowls and Chad Greenway is a terrific linebacker. The problem is the other eight guys aren't very good. Their middle linebacker is a practice squad guy that they threw into the lineup two games ago and he's actually played pretty well. Their secondary has not been very good. It's one of those deals that they can't get a stop when they really need a stop at the end of the game. They're getting a little better. They played better defensively against Philadelphia where they were able to get some pressure on the quarterback. They looked better and they made some plays, particularly in the red zone, but they still gave up 30 points.
Offensively, they didn't play Patterson much early in the year because they wanted to break him in slowly and he's been so good as a kick returner. Last week Philly wouldn't even kick to him. They kicked short because they didn't want him touching the ball and that gave the Vikings great field position pretty much every possession and that was a big reason they were able to score 48 points. The Bengals have to decide to if they're going to kick to this guy. There's got to be a better way because Philly got picked apart.
What wide receiver Greg Jennings has going with Cassel is really interesting. Jennings and Christian Ponder were never able to get that chemistry going, but he's hooked up really nicely with Cassel. Those 11 catches last week, that's the thing that is funny. Here's a guy that played with Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre and here his career catches are with this guy.
This could end up being a closer game than a lot of people might think. The Vikings have a lot of guys playing for jobs. I don't see anybody mailing it in. They like Leslie a lot. There's a lot of respect in the locker room for him. He's done a really nice job and a lot of it is that he's really low key. When you think about that Super Bowl Bears team he was on with all those personalities, he was probably the guy who was the lowest keyed.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 30-24. I know the Vikings are playing better defensively, but I still don't trust them. If they were playing in the dome, I might flip that around. Generally it's the team that needs to win the most that ends up winning a game like this and that would suggest this is Cincinnati's game to win. But that's what we thought against Philly last week. There were actually a few games like that last week.
Minnesota is a team you have to respect. They've got guys like Jared Allen not just cashing a check and playing hard every week. They've got a really good linebacker in Chad Greenway. Obviously the secondary's not great, but Leslie Frazier has those guys playing hard and they get Adrian Peterson back so there's going to be some inspiration there. Matt Cassel has inspired his guys, the guys in the locker room believe in him. But I just don't think Minnesota has enough.
I think Andy Dalton has played in more bad weather games than anybody. Minnesota's pass defense is a little shaky. I'd like to see the Bengals run the ball more. I think it's necessary for them to run the ball.
Geno Atkins is a tough loss for the Bengals and you'd think with the depth they'd hold up. But I think we underestimated the impact of Geno Atkins. You lose your franchise guy, your horse like that, that's tough. We haven't seen the quarterback on the ground as much as we thought. This league is about making plays on third down and in the last four minutes of each half. You need to pressure the quarterback, sack the quarterback, and get their hands on the ball.
You look at the AFC playoff picture. Everybody says who do you like? Me? Nobody. Unless the Bengals get their act together. They have the most balanced team, but there are the injuries now with Geno and in the secondary. You'd like to see Andy Dalton play at a high, high level from this point forward.
They've got more offensive talent than anybody. The offensive line is very good. Paul Alexander is one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL. They've got the two tight ends, two running backs, four or five receivers. It's really up to Andy Dalton to make it 30 points per game team. And then the defense would get a few more sacks.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 30-16. Everybody likes the Bengals in this game. They should be able to handle this defense and they're at home. I still think they need to run the ball more and it will keep Dalton cleaner. He gets the ball out quick.
Big picture, I really believe the Bengals have as good as any team that will be in the AFC playoffs. Now we have to see if they make it.
For a big picture perspective, the Vikings could have easily beaten Baltimore in that crazy game in the snow. They could have easily won the game in overtime where they tied Green Bay. The question is if they're going to finish strong enough to save the coach's job. They're not carrying themselves like a team that's given up on its coach or playing out the string. They've actually played really hard and a lot better than their record has shown.
As for this game, the one issue besides quarterback for them this year has been the passing defense, especially two-minute and against no-huddle. They're getting Harrison Smith back and he's a really good safety who missed a good portion of the year with a foot injury. He played little bit last week and he'll start this week. I think that's going to be a good improvement for them, especially if they're going to go deep to A.J. Green. He's a centerfield-type free safety that can make plays downfield separating the receiver from the ball. I think that's going to be a big thing to watch.
They've been up and down against the run. They've made an improvement in the second half of the season, They moved second-year Audie Cole into middle linebacker who's been better than Erin Henderson and their run defense has been better since the Packers game. They're not the same defense when Favre was here and they were going to the NFC championship game in terms of locking up the run, but they haven't been terrible at it.
Greenway isn't an elite linebacker but he's very consistent and is their best cover guy. He's their best chance to stay with Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. Kevin Williams has had a solid consistent year. It looked like last year he was at the end, but he may have a few years left in him. He can still make some plays. They occasionally play the rookie they put next to him, Sharrif Floyd. Two kind of squirmy tough-to block guys. Floyd has not played a lot and he's been kind of a disappointment. They may want to get him on the field more here at the end of the year and see what he can do next to Kevin Williams.
Right end Jared Allen has been solid, but not as good as his previous years. The sack total of nine is pretty representative of his year. He's not been quite as dominant and I don't think they have to double-team him every play. It's not like that anymore. The guy on the other side on the left, Brian Robison, is a solid veteran. He's a good pass rusher that plays hard every play and gets his hands on lot of balls. He's got a good sense of when he's not going to get there for a sack so he stops and jumps and knocks down a number of balls. They have Everson Griffen who is sort of their third defensive end who can also play inside in the nickel and is really tough to block and he even plays a little linebacker. Those are three guys you have to account for.
As far as their offensive line, they gave up a lot of sacks with Ponder because he didn't have a really good sense in the pocket and he'd take off instead of getting rid of the ball. Cassel gets rid of the ball pretty quickly. Protection has not been great but Cassel doesn't hold the ball as long as Ponder. Left tackle Matt Kalil made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year and has not had as good a year. He's been vulnerable to top-end pass rushers. That combination with Ponder increased the sacks, but it's been better with Cassel dropping and throwing back there.
Everybody talks about Cordarrelle Patterson at kickoff return, but cornerback Marcus Sherels has had his fair share of punt returns. He's not really fast, but he's instinctive about getting upfield and he'll run six yards and all of a sudden no one is around him and he's gone. He gets the most out of every return. I'll be interested to see if they kick to Patterson. The Eagles last week didn't do it the whole game and the Vikings had an average drive start at their 35. He didn't have one return and they even made him one of the up guys, but they still managed to kick it away from him. He's pretty good and it's just not returns. Whenever he gets in the open field he gets after it. A big part of scoring 48 points was the field position.
All of Jennings's four TDs have come from Cassel. They have a very clear chemistry. One of the biggest things Cassel has done is incorporate Jennings more and the numbers are crazy. He had a 92-yard game against Pittsburgh and another 163 last week and that was in two of Cassel's three starts.
I didn't think they were going to bring back wide receiver Jerome Simpson this year and he's actually been a lot better. As he says, he specializes in the spectacular catch. That's the word he used. They throw it up for grabs to him and he's come down with some crazy catches. He's dropped some easy ones, but made some really, really difficult ones. He's been much more productive than I thought. That's part of the reason they weren't playing Patterson much early in the year because Simpson was actually doing pretty well. But they thought they couldn't develop Patterson on the bench. They'll literally throw jump balls to Simpson and somehow he comes down with it and then two plays later they'll throw him five-yard slant and he'll drop it.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 28-24. Vikings have played a lot better and there are some of those games they could have won and they didn't, but there's a reason why. They're kind of an unsettled group right now. I think it will be a fun game and an interesting game. The Vikings defense has not been great about causing turnovers and that's a big thing that hurt the Bengals this year so I'm not sure how many mistakes they'll be able to capitalize on. And the Bengals obviously have a lot more to play for.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you like numbers, you like the Bengals in this one.
They are 6-0 at PBS and playing a team that hasn't won on the road. They're 3-0 at home following a road loss. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 5-0 against the NFC North at PBS, where he's 15-7 in December games.
Unfortunately, the NFL isn't a roulette wheel, although the draft comes pretty close.
This is going to be a tight, interesting game because the Vikes are stocked with talented, top-shelf seasoned professionals starting with their head coach. And any coach that has Adrian Peterson is like Mike Ditka in the '80s with Walter Payton or Paul Brown with Jim Brown in the '50s and '60s and has got a shot on Sunday.
Minnesota has a formidable defensive front and if it is not what it was three years ago, it's the best one the Bengals have played in a while. Plus, the Vikings offense has more weapons than the Steelers and Ravens, and the Bengals couldn't beat them in the last month.
But matchup-wise, the Bengals look OK.
Left tackle Anthony Collins gets another guy headed to Canton after blanking Julius Peppers and Robert Mathis for sacks. Allen's strength is going to test Collins's athleticism, but Allen is going to be tested too because according to Pro Football Focus, Collins hasn't allowed a sack or hit on his QB in 443 snaps.
It should be a good matchup for Dalton and his receivers since the Vikes have the NFL's third-worst pass defense and their physical, aggressive rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes is out.
Two things to look out for, though. Vikings safety Harrison Smith (foot) is back in the lineup and he's a lurking centerfield-type that is going to be all over a deep throw to Green if Dalton hangs it up too long. Also left end Brian Robison has a knack for batting balls and depending on who's keeping the stats, Dalton leads the NFL in tipped passes.
And there is the matchup with Peterson. The Bengals have had some problems with the run at times (first half against Miami and Cleveland) but for the most part they are stingy and are ranked in the NFL's top five against the run.
But shelve all this stuff and just look at special teams. That's going to decide it as the Bengals try to replace one of the top punters in the league with NFL sophomore Shawn Powell, a guy that hasn't punted in a game in 70 days now facing down the NFL's second-best punt return team in the person of cornerback Marcus Sherels.
And then there is Patterson, the NFL's leading kick returner who has taken two back for scores already and he dictated last week's game even though he didn't have a return. The Eagles were so concerned about kicking away from the 6-2, 220-pound terror that when they looked up they had given the Vikes an average drive start of the 35 and 48 points.
It's hard to see special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons giving up like that. The Bengals are 12th covering kickoffs after last year's top 10 finish and haven't given up a jaunt to the house since Trindon Holliday opened the second half with fireworks at PBS back on Nov. 4, 2012 in a loss to Denver.
And the Bengals quietly have their own weapon getting hot. Wide receiver Brandon Tate has climbed to eighth in NFL kick returns after back-to-back big games. Last week his 52-yarder set up a Bengals touchdown on a day he averaged nearly 33 yards per. (Patterson is leading the league with 33.3.) The week before that against Indy, Tate averaged 28.3 with a long of 44 and he added a 43-yard punt return.
Despite the struggles in Pittsburgh last Sunday night, the Bengals know their way around special teams, but the X-factor is Powell. The Bengals can survive a semi-big day by Peterson. But if his name is mentioned in the game stories after Patterson or Sherels, it won't end well for the Bengals script.