The Bengals host the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday in a pivotal game for both teams' postseason aspirations. The game airs nationally on Saturday at 1 p.m. on NFL Network and will also air in Cincinnati on WCPO-TV (ABC Channel 9). Here are five things to watch:
1. Ja'Marr vs. Justin
Fans at Paycor Stadium on Saturday will get a look at two of the top receivers in the NFL in Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase and Minnesota's Justin Jefferson. The former LSU teammates, who alongside Joe Burrow helped the Tigers win a national title in 2019, are set to meet for the first time since the 2021 season-opener in Cincinnati.
Jefferson was out of the Vikings' lineup for seven games with a hamstring injury before returning last week at Las Vegas. Though he suffered a chest injury against the Raiders and did not finish the contest, Jefferson told reporters this week that he will be ready to go on Saturday. The fourth-year pro has the highest career per-game receiving average in NFL history (96.8; minimum 20 games), while Chase ranks third all-time in that category (85.6).
Chase, who last week set a career high for catches in a season, now has his sights set on the top of the Bengals record book in the team's final four games. He stands 23 receptions shy of T.J. Houshmandzadeh's single-season team record of 112 in 2007, and is 363 receiving yards away from his own record of 1,455 set during his rookie year in 2021. The Bengals are 4-1 this season when Chase goes for 100 or more yards, and another big day could lift Cincinnati to a critical home win.
2. Browning Takes On Former Team
Quarterback Jake Browning downplayed the significance of facing the Vikings this week, a team he spent his first two NFL seasons (2018-19) with on their practice squad. He did, however, recognize the importance of the Minnesota chapter of his journey toward being a starting QB in the thick of a playoff race.
"I enjoyed my time there a lot," said Browning in his midweek news conference. "It was two years there where they were kind of the only team that wanted me. I think if anything, there's some appreciation for my time there, and it set me up to come into this building and do what I've been able to do over the last couple years."
Browning is coming off leading the Bengals to back-to-back wins, while posting the highest completion percentage (79.3) by any quarterback in his first three career starts since 1950. His 119.2 passer rating over the past two weeks is the second highest in the league behind San Francisco's Brock Purdy (142.1), and for Cincinnati to make it three in a row, Browning will need to deliver another strong performance against his former team.
3. Defense Seeks Second-Half Takeaways
Cincinnati has collected 21 takeaways this season, the seventh most in the NFL, and owns a plus-10 turnover differential that is tied for second leaguewide. But just has notable has been when those game-changing plays have been made. Ten of Cincinnati's 13 interceptions have come in the second half, the second-most picks after halftime by any team, and six have occurred in the fourth quarter.
Last week against Indianapolis, the Bengals forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter to pull away for their second straight win. Rookie corner DJ Ivey came through on special teams with a fumble recovery on a muffed punt, then four minutes later B.J. Hill leapt for his first career regular-season interception.
The Vikings come in with a minus-five turnover differential, and are 2-4 in games they throw at least one interception. Lou Anarumo's defense making plays in the clutch, and possibly logging another takeaway, would put Cincinnati in strong position to come away with a victory.
4. O-Line vs. Blitz-Heavy Vikes Defense
The Bengals' offensive line had a clean performance on Sunday, allowing zero sacks while opening holes for 111 team rushing yards. This week, the unit will face a Minnesota defense that blitzes on a league-high 46.8 percent of opponent drop backs according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Thanks in part to his solid pass protection, Jake Browning has posted a 128.4 passer rating with three touchdown passes and no interceptions against the blitz over his first three starts. Getting pressure in the backfield and making the quarterback uncomfortable has been a staple of this Vikings defense, but if the Bengals can give Browning time in the pocket, he should be able to continue finding receivers at an efficient rate.
5. Thunder and Lightning
Chase Brown and Joe Mixon each topped 100 yards from scrimmage in Week 14 vs. Indianapolis, becoming the Bengals' first running back duo to so since Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine in Week 16 of the 2020 campaign. Brown netted 80 of his 105 total yards in the passing game, including his first career touchdown on a screen pass that he took 54 yards to the end zone to put Cincinnati ahead early. Mixon churned out 79 rushing yards to go with his 46 receiving (125 total), and scored his sixth rushing touchdown in his last seven games.
The balance that Brown and Mixon provide for Cincinnati — both in the run game and as pass catchers out of the backfield — puts an added stress on opposing defenses that already face concern with the Bengals' stable of wide receivers. The Bengals hope Brown's continued emergence in the offense will complement Mixon's recent consistency as they aim to make it nine straight wins in the month of December dating back to 2021.