Sunday's showcase in New Orleans (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is anything but a Big Easy for the 5-3-1 Bengals and the 4-5 Saints. Both are immersed in division death struggles and the Bengals.com Media Roundtable sides with the Saints because they're so snug in the Superdome.
ESPN.com's Mike Triplett has covered every game of the Saints' Era of Good Feelings with head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. He senses the home field is so powerful, especially the last three seasons when you take out Payton's suspension, that losing back-to-back in that building against a defense that hasn't been able to stop what the Saints do best seems improbable.
The ubiquitous Alex Marvez of Sirius NFL Radio and senior NFL reporter for FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports.com, is mystified by the Bengals and particularly quarterback Andy Dalton. He's a Dalton believer, but these are trying times. He looks at the projected active list, sees no WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, running back Giovani Bernard, and right tackle Andre Smith and goes with the Saints.
Coley Harvey, the Bengals reporter for ESPN.com, just covered his first regular-season loss at Paul Brown Stadium last Thursday night, and thinks they've had enough time to mentally overcome the meltdown against Cleveland. He thinks they'll play well, but not well enough to solve the Saints' prowess at home.
John Clayton, ESPN's The Professor, went to school at last week's heartbreak, where the 49ers stopped the Saints' torrid home streak in overtime. He thinks the Bengals have more talent than the Saints and can make it a tight game like last Sunday's, but he sees New Orleans re-claiming its enormous home edge.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first.
I haven't seen a lot of the Bengals this year but I did see them last Thursday night, so I've got to believe they're a better team than that. But the Saints are so dangerous at home. One reason I was skeptical with the Saints against San Francisco last week is that San Francisco has always been such a tough matchup for them in a kind of a clash of styles. They run the ball so well, play physical defense.
I don't see the matchup, at least on paper, the matchup difficulties that Cincinnati will present since they haven't been that good stopping the run, haven't been that good against tight ends, and haven't been able to put up the kind of points you probably need to beat the Saints. Unless the Saints continue to shoot themselves in the foot, which they've done a lot this year, I really like their chances in this game.
I think one of the key matchups involves someone you guys know well up there from when he played in Pittsburgh, Keenan Lewis, the Saints top cornerback. He's really been outstanding and would be a great matchup against A.J. Green. He's battling a knee injury that could limit him in a huge matchup for New Orleans because they don't want to give up those quick big plays.
They just don't lose in the dome. They went undefeated there in 2011 and 2013 and last week had an 11-game winning streak broken. It was a 20-game winning streak including playoffs with Payton teamed with Brees.
You don't think of it this way, but the Saints defense is probably the unit that benefits the most from playing at home because they have the crowd noise, it helps out their pass rush, and it hurts the opposing offense's communication. The Saints offense is built for a dome, but the offense can still travel as long as there is not weather conditions. But at home the defense is really aided by the crowd noise.
Even more this year than before, they're lining up in more of an actual 3-4 look. So once in a while you'll see their two best pass rushers, right end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, on the same side. Most often you'll see Jordan vs. the right tackle (against Bengals backup Marshall Newhouse) and Galette vs the left tackle (the Bengals' Andrew Whitworth), but they mix it up.
THE EDGE: Saints, 34-20. I think the Saints will be able to score their points against this defense. Especially with Bengals WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict out and especially since they've struggled against the run and tight ends. Their run game and tight end Jimmy Graham have been the two most successful parts of their offense this year and I don't see Cincinnati's offense being able to match that kind of point output.
The Bengals are driving me crazy because I just don't know what this team is and it's frustrating because I really believe Andy Dalton is a better quarterback. But when he has a passer rating of 2, how do I justify that? How can you justify that? It wasn't just him and there are a lot of pieces missing, but what was alarming was the lack of intensity of the Bengals.
Fool me once against the Patriots, you don't show up in prime time. Fool me twice when you do the same thing against the Browns, especially with so much on the line.
I've got to think that Dalton bounces back this week in New Orleans, especially with the secondary they have there. But for the Saints to lose two straight meaningful games at home, you have to go back a long time. I just can't see them losing two in a row at home. Especially without Tez and Gio and no Andre Smith against those pass rushers.
THE EDGE: Saints, 34-20. I just feel like this is a bad matchup for the Bengals and this is all Saints.
The big key for the Bengals is getting the run defense turned around. It's going to be good to have middle linebacker Rey Maualuga back in there and at this point you would think defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Brandon Thompson are back, so to speak, as far as stopping the run in the interior. They have to do that because I imagine the Saints are going to attack that just because the last three weeks running back Mark Ingram has run the ball so well and it seems like they've got a good balance.
If the Saints can run it and open up play-action with wide receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Jimmy Graham, this could be a long day for the Bengals.
Offensively, I think the Bengals will bounce back. Just how well they bounce back from last week, that's kind of the big question and it all revolves around Andy. If he's able to put Cleveland completely behind him. I've kind of said it would serve him best to keep that in the back of his mind as motivation. But knowing the type of quarterback he is, he's at his best when he's got a clean slate starting from scratch in this game.
To that end, they're going to have to run the ball. We've talked about it in the past and last week they kind of went away from that. Even fairly early in the game. They just have to stick with it. They have to pound it, even if they're only gaining three yards. Gain the three yards. Gain the four yards. If you get that. And then open up that play action. That's something we haven't seen them do a lot lately. I think that would help the offense get jump-started.
I think they're back mentally. I think mentally they're fine. Having the 10 days off helped. If this were a Sunday to Sunday turnaround or even shorter turnaround, I don't know about that. I think mentally they'd be a little bit off. It's a tough place to play on the road and I think that's the deciding factor. It's going to be rocking and raucous and tough to overcome. If they get out of this with a win, you have to think it would bolster their confidence and give them some momentum these next few weeks.
THE EDGE: Saints, 27-19. Part of the reason I chose that is the Saints have won something like the last 28 games at home where they've scored 20 points or more. I think they're going to score 20 points. They've got an explosive enough offense and if the Bengals can't quite match the intensity of that home crowd, it could be a long day. Unlike their other losses, it's going to be fairly close but I just don't see them overcoming the Saints' edge at home.
I was down there last week and saw San Francisco pull out a 27-24 game and for whatever reason, because Brees throws so much in the middle of the field now, he's beatable in the sense that you can get a couple of turnovers or interceptions. That's different because before he was always flawless, especially at home.
They're good at home. There's no doubt, but as San Francisco proved last week, they're beatable. You have to be physical at the line of scrimmage, which the Bengals have the ability to do. It would help if cornerback Terence Newman was going to be able to play for the Bengals. Not having him could be a problem.
It's one where you almost concede somehow, some way you have to come up with 27 points because they're going to get at least 24.
Its tough Andre Smith probably won't play, either. I'm a big Cameron Jordan guy, the Saints right end. He reminds me of a younger version of Trevor Pryce. I thought he was going to have a monster year and I thought Saints left end Akiem Hicks was going to be the next guy to have a monster year. So far that hasn't happened. But both guys are really talented.
The game against Cleveland, I just scratch my head. You are seeing a better version of Andy Dalton. I think the running game has helped him out. I know rookie running back Jeremy Hill has done a nice job with Giovani Bernard not out there, but I think not having both backs has maybe influenced things a little bit because Bernard was just so good. He reminds me of what Ray Rice did in the Baltimore offense. Catching screens, getting the ball in the flat, running the ball inside, doing all those things. Maybe that's changed the equation a little bit in what they can do even though Jeremy has done a nice job.
THE EDGE: Saints, 27-24. Like I saw last week. You have to favor New Orleans because they're at home. But I think the Bengals come in with a little more talent than they have. The place is so loud. That's the one thing that plays to the Saints' benefit. You won't be able to hear in the press box it's so loud. Even at 7:30 or 8 a.m. when they're trying to practice all the half-time stuff and all that, you can't even do a radio interview it's so loud. It just holds the noise. But they are beatable as I saw last week.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Take the injuries. Mix in the Great Red Implosion of ten days ago. Add in the Saints' suffocating home dome advantage and it's hard to remember when the Bengals have been such an underdog since the day they stunned Eli Manning's Super Bowl champion Giants at PBS. That was two years and three days ago and in that stretch the Bengals have gone 12-4 in November and December and there is the blueprint for how Dalton can beat back the bad karma and the Bengals pop another upset.
In those 16 games, the Bengals are 7-1 when they run it at least 30 times. Indeed, when the Bengals run it at least 30 times this season, they are 4-0-1.
Look how the 49ers beat the Saints last week in the Superdome in overtime. They ran it 32 times (for 4.5 yards per carry) and kept Brees and Co., off the field in key moments. New Orleans ended up winning the time of possession in overtime by three minutes. But the Niners had a five-minute edge at half as they jumped to a 21-10 lead.
And check out the other Saints' losses. Both the Falcons and Browns gave up big rushing days to New Orleans, but they kept pounding it themselves. Atlanta bit off 4.9 per carry and Brees had the ball for barely half the game and while Cleveland only got 4.1 yards per carry, they ran it 30 times.
And how important is it to run the ball? The Saints tee off on the pass rush, aided immeasurably by the crowd noise, where third-and-seven is death. With Marshall Newhouse expected to again replace right tackle Andre Smith (ankle), the Bengals have to protect him against the five sacks of Cameron Jordan. ProFootballFocus.com charged Newhouse with a sack, a pressure, and a hurry against Cleveland, but he also played in a game the Bengals ran it just 22 times, kept it just 24 minutes, and converted just three of 17 third-downs.
With all the injuries on defense _ and that includes their best player from last year (Burfict) and this year ( Newman), they can't have Brees drop back for 36 minutes and expect to win.
Stopping the run, of course, is the other element. Last December they held foes to 84 rush yards per game once Maualuga came back into the lineup and Newman exited with a knee injury. They need to find that magic again and put a dent in that No. 31 ranking. But even if they get nicked (and Saints running back Mark Ingram has three straight 100-yard games), they can stop the bleeding with a running game of their own.
As much as cyberspace has been filled this week with how the Bengals must stop the run to win, it is going to be their pass defense that gives the offense a chance to win. Brees holds the ball back there and is gunning it to the tune of 10 interceptions. When the Bengals get some balls in the air, they have to catch them in what will truly have to be a bend-but-don't-break effort.
Some of the Bengals' key players have reasons to have the intangibles on their side. Hill, a Baton Rouge native, has never played in the Superdome. Whitworth, working against the AFC North-like Galette and his team-high six sacks, is 8-1 in the Dome as a schoolboy, collegian, and pro. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, getting more snaps with Newman probably out, is an Alabama guy, as is new middle linebacker Nico Johnson.
Physical running games and rugged defenses have given the Saints problems. That's how the Bengals have styled themselves and how they jumped to a 3-0 start. They need to regain that push-forward identity that disappeared into the bye week and appeared briefly against Baltimore.