There's an AFC power surge Thursday night (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9) at a Paycor Stadium blanketed in white when the defending champion Bengals play the white-hot Dolphins, a just-as-fast emerging team that has blazed to 11 wins in their last dozen games stretching back to last season.
The quicksilver Dolphins offense has Miami as the lone 3-0 AFC team for the first time since they famously went 17-0 in 1972. That was the year before Bengals wide receiver Isaac Curtis dashed into the league with some rare speed of his own that is honored Thursday night in a Ring of Honor ceremony with generational right tackle Willie Anderson.
With Who-Dey at high tide on a glittering gala of a night The White Helmet arrives, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is calling for a Cincy sweep in a close call, just like last week before the win in New York.
Dan Hoard, the stately Voice of the Bengals, predicts he and analyst Dave Lapham extol the red-hot Bengals defense during the evening while The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith sees Joe Burrow again edging Tua Tagovailoa in a replay of their college days.
USA Today NFL columnist Jarrett Bell believes the Bengals keep Burrow protected well enough to win. Long-time Dolphins observer and Pro Football Hall of Fame voter Armando Salguero,
, senior NFL writer for Outkick.com, believes Miami is legit but that Burrow is going to use that protection to hurt the Dolphins secondary.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
I have to believe the Bengals gained some traction. You also knew the things we all liked about this team last year are there. Especially when you talk about the offense and the playmakers. The thing you didn't like about them last year is still there and that's going to be on a week-to-week basis in my mind the determining factor on whether they win or lose.
To put it all on the offensive line and the protection for Joe Burrow, realistically, it's a team game and there are other things that matter, like how Burrow plays, the running game, the defense. But if I'm looking for a week-to-week barometer, it's the offensive line and the protection for Joe Burrow.
THE EDGE: The Bengals at home, on a short week and with questions about Tua's health right now, those are edges for them. But we know it's going to be a dogfight because the Dolphins are a much better team than they've been. BENGALS, 28-24
The Dolphins came to town early because of the hurricane. Although they got in earlier than expected, that didn't affect their practice. They did it before they left and it was only a walkthrough. They're basically monitoring Tua, who injured his back last Sunday on a quarterback sneak. I expect him to play and if he can play like he did in the fourth quarter against the Ravens, then the Dolphins have a great shot to win. If he doesn't, then they don't have a great shot to win.
Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones hasn't played all season, so that's problematic. Cornerback Nic Needham has struggled this season. He's been picked on both on the outside and in the slot. Obviously, the Bengals have very good outside receivers and a very good slot receiver, so that's a problem for the Dolphins. But their saving grace is they do get after the quarterback. They don't always get there. But their whole philosophy is not necessarily sacks but making the quarterback uncomfortable, getting him off his platform, that kind of stuff and they do it in all sorts of ways. Although it didn't happen a lot last week, they are a blitzing bunch.
THE EDGE: I just trust the Bengals' firepower more than I trust the Dolphins' firepower, although Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are for real. They're legit. BENGALS, 23-20
It's the best offense the Bengals have faced all season, but I'd rather be the team whose quarterback doesn't have a back issue. I think Joe Burrow has a great track record in these games. I think the Bengals offense identified some stuff that worked consistently for them.
THE EDGE: It's going to be a Tee Higgins game. He looks like a much more well-rounded, physical, athletic player and looks even better than last year.
The Dolphins are legit. This is not a 3-0 start because everything has fallen right. This team's really good. Lok at what they did in the second half last year. It's carried over to this year. I think the new head coach is really sharp. It's a very difficult offense to defend, but the Bengals defense is playing great. I think the defense is the key to victory. I'm not talking about another game where they don't give up a touchdown. But I think they hold the Dolphins in check enough to escape with the win.
THE EDGE: I agree with the notion the home-field advantage on Thursday night is the biggest advantage you can get. Plus, the offense is ascending, the line played better last week, Joe looked really sharp and the Bengals defense is playing so well. BENGALS, 27-24
THE BOTTOM LINE
It will be recalled that a year ago Thursday night in this building Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had a bit of a coming-out party against the Jaguars when he pulled off his first career fourth-quarter comeback. Before Urban Meyer went to Columbus, the Jags went south when they paid a heavy price for sending a zero blitz at Burrow with 69 seconds left that turned into a 25-yard play to tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Hence the "You can't zero me," Burrow clip.
So here come the Dolphins, who lead the NFL in zero blitzes. You still can't zero (sending one blitzer more than blockers) Burrow and just regular blitzes aren't great, either. This season Burrow has three touchdowns and no picks with the NFL's fastest release against the blitz, according to Next Gen Stats, while the Dolphins have allowed five touchdowns and have no picks and a 140 passer rating against the blitz.
So how much will the Dolphins zero? If that's what they do, how much can they change on a short week? Also factors that appear to be on Burrow's side are that Miami's Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard (groin/glute) is reportedly going to play despite being questionable and Nik Needham is Pro Football Focus' 109th-rated cover corner after allowing a 41-yard completion. But a college free agent, Kader Kohou, is rated 21st, so we'll see what Burrow can find.
And he'll have to get it out of his hands. Miami's pass rush isn't as docile as what the Jets had. But it's not the Steelers and Cowboys, either. Still, in this 11-1 binge, the Dolphins have the second most sacks in the league with 42, courtesy of their heat.
The fleet Dolphins wide-receiver tandem of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle lead the NFL with a combined 509 air yards, but they face their sternest test of the season against a Bengals defense that has allowed just one passing touchdown. Somehow, the Bengals' own great receiving corps has been overshadowed by all this talk of speed. The Bengals quietly are the only team with three receivers that each have at least 150 yards a touchdown in the first three weeks.
And when Burrow bested the blitz Sunday on Tyler Boyd's billiard-ball 56-yard touchdown, it was his NFL-leading 13th ball of at least 50 yards since 2021. And, yes, The Cheetah (Hill) comes into The Jungle with four touchdowns of at least 30 yards since 2021 and there's this thing he has against Bengals cornerback Eli Apple getting a lot of play.
But it is Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase that leads the NFL with eight TDs of at least 30 yards since 2021 and you have to believe the fact he doesn't have one yet this year gives him the biggest chip of them all in this one.
You just know the extremely competitive Chase doesn't want to be left out of this show. If he scores from deep on Isaac Curtis' night, maybe he'll do the Ice Man's flip over his shoulder.