The last time the Bengals were at Paycor Stadium, they made history with quarterback Joe Burrow's 481 yards. Two weeks later they return home for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) against the Panthers trying to repeat history and get to 5-4 at the bye like they did when they launched last year's Super Bowl run.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable believes they should, but casts a wary eye at a 2-6 Panthers team playing them hard and close for interim head coach Steve Wilks. They're playing them so hard and so close that veteran Carolina observer Darin Gantt, the Panthers.com guru who has covered them since their infancy, predicts the teams to repeat their tie the last time they met at Paycor. That 37-37 blood bath in 2014 where 2011 second-round pick Andy Dalton, with 323 yards, outpitched the overall No. 1 in that draft Cam Newton, with 284, is still the highest scoring tie in NFL history but Gantt doesn't see it getting that out of hand.
The Athletic's Joe Person, another long-time Panthers reporter and reigning North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year, gives this one to Burrow given the state of the Panthers secondary. Despite the state of the Bengals secondary, the Cincinnati contingent of The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith and SI.com's James Rapien gives it to Burrow.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first.
It looks like it's going to be decided late. That seems to be the new personality of the Panthers, especially the last couple of weeks. They effectively outscore Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then get in a real shootout down in Atlanta last weekend. I know the Bengals secondary is banged up and the Panthers have issues of their own right now. But they have shown they can score points, they can run the ball well, they can get the ball downfield in chunks in an old-school offense running play-action and getting the ball downfield.
The knock on Panthers quarterback PJ Walker early in his career was he'd make the big mistake. If you look back in the Rams game, they didn't offer him many opportunities to make any and I think they realized they needed to loosen the reigns a little bit and let PJ cook, so to speak. In Atlanta, other than the DJ Moore Hail Mary, there were four other pass plays of 20 yards or more. And that's kind of what they need. It reminds me a little bit of Jake Delhomme and Dan Henning and Stephen Davis and Steve Smith in 2003. A power running game and get yards through the air in shots. The combination can work. I don't know how long the PJ Walker experiment is going to last, but so far the results have been better than anticipated the last few weeks.
THE EDGE: Based on how hard the Panthers have played the last couple of weeks, they've got an upset in them. I don't know if it comes this week, but I do think they have a couple of those in them based on how hard they play. I'm going to predict the second tie in franchise history going back to 2014, the last time the Panthers were in Cincinnati. BENGALS-PANTHERS, 24-24
The Panthers' defense typically keeps them in games and if Walker can avoid a bad throw like the pick-six at the end of the half last week, they should be in this one. It wouldn't shock me if they won, but I see Burrow going after a secondary that is missing one key starter in safety Jeremy Chinn and another one limited in cornerback Donte Jackson, questionable with an ankle injury. They do have a solid defense. They've scored three touchdowns this year. But they don't do it with a gaudy pass rush. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, the first-round run-stopper from Auburn, is playing with a disruption they haven't seen in his three seasons and is coming off a rare 12-tackle game for an interior player. Brian Burns has five sacks off the edge, but the rest of the team only has seven.
They may not be as dangerous on offense without running back Christian McCaffrey, but the physical, down-hill style they're playing with right now seems to better fit their personnel, both in terms of running back D'Onta Foreman and Bradly Bozeman, the center who came over from the Ravens.
THE EDGE: The Panthers are playing inspired football behind Steve Wilks and PJ Walker. The locker room is excited about both of them. I just think trying to beat Joe Burrow on the road with a banged-up secondary is not a recipe for success. BENGALS, 27-21
PJ Walker is a very aggressive quarterback, but I think you can start to see some other guys step up in the Bengals secondary without cornerback Chidobe Awuzie now that they'll have a full week to game plan for it. Other than strong safety Von Bell's five forced, turnovers have eluded them recently and this is a matchup where this defense should be able to turn over an inexperienced quarterback who takes a lot of risks.
THE EDGE: Their defensive playmakers are looking for a statement game. Most notably free safety Jessie Bates III. BENGALS, 20-14
The Bengals need to be the more desperate team for a win and they weren't on Monday night against the Browns. They're shorthanded on defense. They're shorthanded on offense and the bye is right around the corner. They have to find a way to scratch and claw past a Panthers team that is playing better. And I think they do. In the last year-and-a-half this team has responded to any kind of adversity and I think they'll do the same. The Panthers don't have the same backs or the same offensive line as the Browns.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are not only desperate, but offensively I think they'll be able to string together enough drives and keep it simple on defense by stopping the run and not letting PJ Walker throw it 70 yards. BENGALS, 23-20
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rather fitting that a month that has featured the Bengals' hand-to-hand combat with physical down-hill running games culminates in Sunday's stiff-arm contrast of styles.
In his three games as interim head coach of the Panthers, Steve Wilks has tried to get his team on sound footing with the big arm of young PJ Walker surrounded by an ever bigger running game. While Carolina is 1-2, they've run it 84 times for 435 yards. In those same three games, the Bengals are 2-1 as Burrow put up top five passing numbers while the Bengals ran it 45 times for 189 yards. The Panthers are doing it at 5.2 yards per pop, the Bengals at 4.2. But Cincy remembers the previous two games before Monday night's loss in Cleveland and they're trying to get running back Joe Mixon back on that 5.5-yard per track.
But, like the Falcons came in here two weeks ago, the Panthers come in with a secondary not at full strength and a low-ranked pass rush and those two factors went a long way in computing Burrow's 481 yards. He won't have Ja'Marr Chase, but he'll have everyone else. Three of the Bengals' four losses have come against teams in the top half of two NFL stats: rushing and generating sacks per pass. But they've got a good matchup here with the Panthers 30th in sacks per pass. Although Panthers running back D'Onta Foreman is coming off back-to-back 118-yard games, he won't have reliever Chuba Hubbard's 6.5 yards per carry.
The Carolina plan would seem to be pretty clear. Keep running the ball and keep Walker chucking it in the attempt to deke the Bengals rookie defensive backs into mistakes on play-action. And keep Burrow off the field.
It's not an easy matchup for the Bengals. Not without their top two nose tackles and two of their starting cornerbacks. It's been a season the Bengals defense has pretty much carried their offense and now as the bye beckons with a got-to-have-it fifth win, it looks like the offense has to return the favor. The numbers say they can.