As Andy Dalton gets set to start his last game as a 25-year-old in his 40th NFL game Sunday against the Jets at Paul Brown Stadium (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), his Bengals have a two-game lead in the AFC North and a chance to take a massive step in his quest to become the fifth quarterback in NFL history to reach the playoffs in each of his first three seasons.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable, anchored by the ubiquitous and erstwhile Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots, is unanimous in its belief the good times are going to continue to roll as Dalton duels Jets rookie Geno Smith in his eighth NFL start.
Wilcots, who also blitzes for NFL Network, is calling Sunday's game for CBS and he's giving the edge to the Bengals because of their veteran defense and relentless front-four pass rush working at home against the inexperience of Smith.
Dan Pompei, an esteemed veteran NFL scribe who spent a total of 22 years covering the league for both Chicago papers as well as another decade at* The Sporting News*, picks the Bengals in a tight one because of Dalton's hot hand. Pompei, in town for the week to write a profile on Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden for Bleacher Report, also thinks the Jets are going to be grappling with Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.
In a game of intertwined coaching roots (Jets head coach Rex Ryan worked for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Bengals secondary coach Mark Carrier worked for Ryan), The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy meets up with the team he covered for the White Plains, N.Y. newspaper from 1997-98. Reedy, now The Enquirer's indefatigable Bengals beat man, also gives the Bengals a close one citing the pressure they'll be able to exert on Smith.
Rich Cimini, the Broadway Joe of the Jets beat with two decades at Newsday and The New York Daily News before taking his velvet touch to ESPNNewYork.com, opts for a nine-point Bengals victory because of the Bengals deep pool of offensive options and Smith's inconsistency.
Let's go around The Table:
The Bengals tackles have their hands full with both defensive ends in the Jets 3-4 defense. Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson have been just a wrecking crew as of late. They're one of the better defensive lines the Bengals are going to see all season. This is a defense that held Tom Brady to 1-of-12 on third down one week ago.
One might argue they did a better job shutting down Tom Brady than the Bengals did earlier in the season. That's how good this defense is. I think that matchup is going to be pivotal simply because the Bengals have to be able to run the ball and have manageable third downs and they've got to be able to protect and both these guys are monsters against the run and they're equally good at getting pressure on the quarterback.
I give the edge to the Bengals tackles, with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, because Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was the Jets coordinator as recently as last year. So this defense is the same defense they saw a couple of weeks ago in Buffalo. They're identical. Its different personnel, but it's identical in terms of scheme. There won't be any trickery going on. I think the Bengals are well locked in on what the Jets want to do defensively.
Another advantage the Bengals have in my mind is going against a rookie quarterback on the road and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been so much better in terms of his overall ball distribution and spreading it around and not forcing it into A.J. Green and allowing the other weapons to play at a really high level. I just think if the Bengals offense can get points on the board it forces Geno to be one-dimensional and to make plays throwing the ball and that's where the Bengals defensive front has to win.
Let's face it; there are some question marks on the back end for the Bengals with the loss of Leon Hall at that nickel corner position. The front seven for the Bengals really has to carry this team until they can get things ironed out in the secondary.
To me, always, when you have a veteran group like the Bengals defense, when you have an eight-man rotation on your defensive line that the Bengals are putting out there, when you have the NFL's leading tackler in Vontaze Burfict going against a rookie quarterback and you're at home, there's no doubt I'm giving the Bengals the edge there.
Andy gets a national game here in a minute on Thursday against Miami (NFL Network) and they have a really good defense and it's on the road. He's got to continue this little streak. But we know Andy did it last year. He went on a run where they won seven of their last eight games and beat Pittsburgh on the road. This is who Andy is. I like Andy Dalton. We have to understand in the class of quarterbacks 25 years or younger, this guy wins as much as any of them. I'm talking Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck. He wins as much as any of them and that ought to be the common denominator. That's the No. 1 deal. He wins football games. He's also growing. He's three years into the league. We've seen some growth and I'm sorry it hasn't been like Google stock and gone from zero to 80. But the growth chart is going to show some regression at times and we've seen that. But I like where he's at and what he's doing because he wins football games.
THE EDGE: Bengals. I won't give a score because you know I don't do numbers or pick games. But this game is going to be close, now. The Bengals are used to playing these kinds of games. We saw it the last couple of weeks and even going back three weeks ago against New England. And the Jets defense is good enough to keep it close. Andy's got to protect the ball. You can't turn it over against this team. You start turning it over, I always say turnovers are the great equalizer. If you have an advantage and you start turning it over, now you put that team on the same level as you. I think it's going to be a very close game and I think if the Bengals protect the football it's a game they should win.
Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie on A.J. is a big matchup, but you look at (Jets rookie cornerback) Dee Milliner with the burn rates on the number of times he's been targeted and the numbers with him look pretty good, too. So Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu against Milliner could be an interesting matchup. I think it's different than Buffalo in that there are going to be some opportunities to take shots deep. Against Buffalo there weren't those cases. I think there'll be a little more single coverage.
The one thing that really has shocked me is the number of times Geno Smith has gone down and not just on designed runs. I think he's a more conventional quarterback than maybe I thought. I expected him to be more like Cam Newton as a runner and he hasn't been that. I think the OC and the quarterback coach are doing a good job training him, but I think if it's like Pittsburgh where you get pressure on him and get him down and the receivers are still a little inexperienced, you have to give the Bengals the edge there.
The only area where I think the Jets have a decided edge is run defense. I just think as we saw last week it's going to be tough sledding. I think they can throw it on the Jets, but Wilkerson against Andre Smith or whoever, that's going to be a fun matchup to watch. Because you look at Wilkerson, he kind of reminds me of Geno Atkins in his second and third years. Maybe a little underrated and a little under the radar and he just keeps putting up consistent numbers and gets after guys.
I think the Jets run game is going to be something to watch. The fear of the unknown. Jets running back Chris Ivory came in here three years ago and lit them up (with 117 yards for the Saints). I think they did a good job last week on Reggie Bush, but this is going to be another challenge.
Andy Dalton played well against Buffalo and played well in the second half against Pittsburgh against Dick LeBeau's schemes that are complex. The one advantage Dalton has this week is that Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese has gone up against Rex's schemes enough through the years that he's a good sounding board how to attack it.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. It's an interesting month. If they could somehow sweep the Jets and Miami, they're in great shape. I just don't see how they can sweep this stretch. I've got them winning this one. They're at home. They're facing a rookie quarterback. I think the defensive line is a little surly after not having any sacks last Sunday and the left side of the Jets line has given up a few sacks. I like that advantage a little bit.
The key probably every week for the opponent of the Bengals is how do you contain A.J. Green? I would expect the Jets to make their pass rush their best coverage and that's going to be the challenge for the Bengals as it is with most game against the Jets. To try and contain that front, not only from a physical standpoint but from the standpoint of identifying whose rushing and who's not rushing and getting it blocked up right and not getting Dalton killed. And I think Dalton is at a point in his career where he's starting to ascend.
The Bills defense is similar, but they're probably not as sophisticated and probably not as talented as the Jets, especially inside. The thing with Rex is you never know game to game what he's going to bring for pressure. That's what makes him so dangerous. He changes it up so much. He's capable of doing something completely different game to game, series to series, even down to down. He's very unpredictable.
The Bengals offensive line has been solid. They've played some good defensive fronts, too. The Lions probably have as good a four-man front as there is in football and they handled them pretty well. The only difference here is that in addition to the talent they add the element of confusion.
The Bengals will get some one-on-one shots and they'll hit on some shots. Will there be enough good to overcome whatever mayhem Rex causes?
Geno has had some real different games. When he turns it over and played poorly, they've lost. When he takes care of the ball, they've won. I know they try to take precautions and not lay him out there 40 times. Against the Patriots in overtime, they had 13 snaps and 12 of them were runs. So they're cautious with him. But they do throw it down the field at times.
I talked to Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg about him and he said one of the best things he does is drive the ball down the field, so we don't want to take that away from him. The Bengals have to pressure him, but you have to be a little regulated in your rush because he's got the legs. You have to make sure you keep contain on him and stay in the lanes.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. If the Bengals can make some big plays on that defense early and take control of the game, they should be able to win with the way Andy Dalton is playing so well. And I think the Jets are going to have a hard time with A.J.
The Jets have to block Geno Atkins and I think a lot of that falls on the left guard Brian Winters and he's only been starting for four weeks. He had a bad game last week against the Patriots. He gave up two sacks and he's going to have to have a better game.
The Jets throwing against the Bengals secondary will be an interesting matchup, especially without cornerback Leon Hall in the slot. The Jets best receiver last week was their slot guy, Jeremy Kerley, who had eight catches and had six third-down conversions. He and Geno had a really good chemistry going. If the Bengals are unstable in that position, it's something the Jets could go after.
You would think they would go in there and protect Geno with the run. But Mornhinweg is a very aggressive offensive coordinator. They have been relying on the running game a little bit more the last three weeks, partly because they have no Santonio Holmes at wide receiver on the outside and partly because Geno had such a bad game against the Titans that they wanted to rein it in a little bit. But he throws downfield a lot. They feel that's his strength, the way he throws the ball vertically. He's got the fifth-highest completion percentage in the league for passes over 20 yards, so I don't think they'll take that away from him. They'll try to be balanced, but they're not afraid to let him throw it around the ballyard. He's pretty good.
But they've got this new two-headed thing going on in the backfield with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, they mix in some Wildcat, and they do some read option. So they get pretty creative with the way they run the ball and they have to because they don't have an outside running threat. They're just a couple of between-the-tackle guys.
The Jets win when Geno doesn't turn it over. Last week he had the one pick-six, but that was his only turnover. In the Atlanta win on that dramatic last-minute drive he had no turnovers. He played a clean game. It comes down to Geno, just like it does every week. Ball security. The one stat that is interesting—and that's been the big buzz in New York this week is inconsistency—is that Geno is 0-3 after wins with one touchdown and seven interceptions. I don't know if that's a function of who they were playing the next week or that he can't handle prosperity, but it's been good week, bad week. Good Geno, bad Geno. Based on that pattern he's not going to play well in Cincinnati.
The Jets have a good respect for Dalton. The way he gets the ball out quickly. They're coming off a week where they played Tom Brady and so much of the focus last week was on the quarterback. This week there was more talk about A.J. Green. There was a lot of buzz when someone asked defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman what his advice to Cromartie would be on how to handle A.J. Green and Thurman said, "Get your hands on him and pray." I think Cromartie will follow him around for most of the game in one if the marquee matchups.
Rex is definitely not playing as much one-on-one coverage. Their blitz numbers are down. There are a couple of reasons for that. They've been able to get pretty good pressure with their front four. These guys can bring it. Wilkerson, Richardson, Quinton Coples, those guys are pretty good pass rushers. Calvin Pace is OK. He's kind of average. They don't have to send five, six guys as much. Another reason is they don't have cornerback Darrelle Revis back there. Cromartie hasn't had the greatest year, so I don't know if Rex trusts his corners as much in man-to-man situations.
Cromartie played better against the Patriots, but even by his own admission it hasn't been close to a Pro Bowl year. They have played a little bit softer. At times it almost looks like a bend but don't break. If you mention that to Rex, he'll freak out. Bend but don't break are like curse words to him. At times it does look like that because they've given up big passing days for guys that have just been dinking and dunking them.
That other cornerback spot has been musical chairs. The first-round pick, Dee Milliner is there now, but I don't think there's a lot of faith in Milliner. They're trying to keep everything in front of them and eliminate the big plays. The safeties aren't great, although Antonio Allen played a really good game against Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in single coverage. I think he' be heavily involved in tight end coverage.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-14. The Bengals are hot. They're a good home team. They've got multiple weapons and the Jets won't be able to key on one guy and say, 'If we stop him, we win.' I think the Jets are going to have trouble with that front seven. They've only faced two other top 10 defenses so far. It was Pittsburgh and Tennessee and they just couldn't move the ball on either one. I just think they're going to have some problems at the line of scrimmage for the reasons we talked about. And Geno has not been consistent.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With that Halloween Night game looming in Miami on Thursday, these next five days may truly be the witching hour for the 5-2 Bengals, the AFC's No. 2 seed if the playoffs began right now.
With AFC games against the 4-3 Jets and the 3-3 Dolphins, the Bengals can take a major stronghold in the playoff chase with a sweep and could conceivably go into next weekend at 7-2 controlling a huge number of tiebreakers.
But first, beware the rookie quarterback, a killer in AFC games in the brief Green-Dalton era, particularly at home.
The Texans knocked the Bengals out of a shot at a playoff bye in December 2011 when rookie quarterback T.J. Yates threw for 300 yards in his first NFL start. Last October, Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill sprung a 17-13 upset at PBS and Brandon Weeden of the Browns followed suit in Cleveland with the help of the Browns defense, just the kind of help Ryan is ready to give with his bevvy of looks.
But the Bengals offense is better now than it was in 2011 and 2012 and it will have to answer the bell. The Bengals defense must put the game in Smith's hands by stopping the running game. He has one TD and seven picks in his three losses and when the game was on the line in overtime last weekend against New England the Jets ran it all but once in their 13 snaps.
Yes, Smith can go downfield, but who is he throwing to? New York's best receiver is in the slot with Kerley and while the Bengals don't have Hall to cover him in the slot, Chris Crocker knows the drill. The Jets diversity is a challenge in the running game with the occasional Wildcat look and zone read. The Bengals only have to look at the '09 Wild Card game to figure out how a Jets rookie QB beat them at home. Someone named Shonn Greene ran for 135 yards.
The Bengals need to manage the run to tee off on the pass. The Jets are third worst in the NFL at allowing sacks per pass and Winters, their left guard, has allowed three sacks by himself as he prepares for Atkins.
The Jets are second in the NFL in stopping the run, so don't look for a big running day. But look for the wide receiver screens that hurt the Bills defense two weeks ago. The Steelers threw 10 screens at the Jets in their game.
And don't get too caught up in Green vs. Cromartie. This game will come down to Bengals wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu attacking the other corner spot that has struggled. The rookie Milliner, according to Pro Football Focus, is fifth-worst in the league giving up plays, with 12 passes of the 30 targets in his area being completed.
The formula for a Bengals win? Pass rush on an inexperienced QB with a big arm without having to worry about the run and another balanced day in their own passing game—both in personnel and scheme—that keeps the Rex pressure at bay.