The 7-5 Bengals are hanging in the AFC playoffs by their fingertips and they're banking on quarterback Joe Burrow's dislocated pinky on his throwing hand being sturdy enough to give them a firmer grip in the post-season chase Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the 6-6 49ers at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable isn't so sure it has a handle on what amounts to a 40th anniversary celebration of both franchises' first Super Bowl. But then who does in this reality TV NFL season?
It may seem like NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco covered that first Super Bowl, but he's worked plenty in his 26 years covering the Niners. He thinks Sunday belongs to Burrow, the man whose demeanor Bengals offensive line coach and former 49er Frank Pollack once compared to Super Bowl XVI MVP Joe Montana.
Alex Marvez, the Sirius NFL Radio talkmaster, thinks the Bengals defense is primed to stop the San Fran run game while the Cincinnati contingent is split.
Local 12 digital sports columnist Richard Skinner, who has coached enough basketball games to know home field advantage, thinks it lifts the Bengals over a team yet to find a flow. The Athletic's Paul Dehner, Jr., says he doesn't have a crush on 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, but he at least carries a torch for his run scheme he believes carries the day.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
These two teams are very unpredictable. Maybe every team in the NFL this season is unpredictable. You just don't know what you're getting week-to-week with the 49ers. You're just seeing how the last month or so has played out with the Bengals and you kind of feel the same way about them. But when these teams are at their best, they can beat anybody and when they're not at their best they can lose to anybody. I go into this game knowing both teams are fighting for their playoff lives. I think it's going to be hotly contested and tight from beginning to end.
The 49ers want to run the ball effectively, not just for the yards but to control the time of possession. They have some major issues this week in trying to defend the Bengals passing game. The more they can control the game running the ball effectively, the more they'll be able to help their own defense. But there's only one healthy running back on the team (the Niners signed Brian Hill late in the week) in JaMycal Hasty. Elijah Mitchell has had a really good season but he's out with a concussion.
The 49ers' strength on defense is their front seven. Linebacker Fred Warner is back this week and he's an All-Pro caliber player. Their defensive line has been pretty good. It's getting better and better and edge Nick Bosa is living up to all expectations as the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft. He tore his ACL in week two last year and he's better than he was before the injury with 12 sacks in 12 games. Because of their injuries at cornerback, where they are very thin, they need to administer as much pressure as they can on the quarterback. Their No. 1 corner is Josh Norman, signed the week before the season opener, and he leads the team in penalties.
THE EDGE: I just don't know how the 49ers, with their issues at cornerback, can slow down the Bengals. When I look at all the matchups, where does one team have the more pronounced edge over the other team, I think that's it. I think Joe Burrow and company should have a big day. BENGALS, 31-28
I think the Chargers game is a good lessons-to-be learned game for the Bengals. While I'm not there to see the mental approach of everybody, I do think coming back to earth isn't necessarily a bad thing for this team. Depth to me has always been the biggest issue of why I've hesitated to get too squarely on the bandwagon. But with the offensive line starting everyone again, I feel a lot better about their chances. Having Joe Mixon for a full game makes a big difference, too. For San Francisco, the Seattle game was devastating in terms of going on the road and losing for the 17th time to Russell Wilson. I feel like if the Bengals can just stop the run, or do a decent job of it, I really like their chances.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are healthier now. They're a good team. Just knock on wood, no injuries, and we'll see you playing on the weekend of Jan. 16. BENGALS, 26-20
It's not a good week to be low on linebackers. The 49ers have their injury issues, too. They're thinking the same thing. It's not a good week to have a lot of DBs out and feel thin there. The question to me is which of those two weaknesses, due to injury or play or whatever, holds up enough. Will the Niners pass rush be able to offset their weakness in the back end? Will the Bengals' really good run-stopping front four be able to offset some of those inexperience issues of the linebackers behind them? Both teams are kind of counting on some stuff to carry some weaker spots.
I don't have a crush on 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, but I think he's truly one of the offense geniuses in our game right now. I think he's incredible and I think if he has his full array of weapons, especially wide receiver Deebo Samuel, I think this defense is going to have a tough time and I think he's going to put up points and I think he's going to have a great game plan. I like that the Bengals defense is kind of built to stop the run in Sam (Hubbard), D.J. (Reader), Larry (Ogunjobi) and so many of those guys. But I just don't know if they have enough pieces there right now with what's behind them. San Francisco is going to score some points, so can the Bengals offensive line slow down the 49ers pass rush enough for Burrow to take advantage of the mismatches his wide receivers would seem to have?
THE EDGE: I just think the Bengals linebackers aren't going to be able to make enough plays and Jimmy Garoppolo is going to get them over the middle and I think they'll be able to run it really efficiently. 49ERS, 30-24
A lot of this depends on a little pinky finger, does it not? And how that pinky finger responds on Sunday. I can't imagine he did go through really a whole game after hurting it of not re-injuring it again, but I just fear for that. You have to have that guy upright and playing snaps. I think a lot of it hinges on how much do you get out of center Trey Hopkins and right tackle Riley Reiff. You get those guys back. Get Joe Mixon back. I think this has to become a run-heavy game and get the ball out of Joe Burrow's hands quickly kind of game just so you don't expose him to getting hit. I'm not going to put everything on the guys that replaced Hopkins and Reiff last Sunday, Trey Hill and Isaiah Prince, but they were pretty doggone good running the football when they had their starting offensive line the first two games after the bye. Yes, I know it was defense-depended on the way the Raiders play it and Pittsburgh plays it. But that looks like a pretty good formula for success and unfortunately they had to get away from that the last game because of scores and turnovers and all those things.
On the defensive side, how do you handle that running game? Especially without Logan Wilson. Who steps up and really makes plays against that running game and doesn't allow explosive plays to happen with tight end George Kittle? We're going to find out how much this team misses Logan Wilson on Sunday. They need Germaine Pratt to play as well as he did this past week. You can get through another week or two with either Markus Bailey or Joe Bachie playing in that spot. We're talking about a pinky and we're talking about the middle of the football field and how do they handle George Kittle and that run game.
I'm just not a big believer in Frisco. They're 6-6 for a reason. Two of their losses were with Trey Lance playing quarterback for a game and a half, so you have to factor that in the equation. They didn't play very well last week. Not a lot of big-time wins in their winning streak. They're banged up a little bit on defense, too. It looks like the Bengals are getting some guys back so while they're banged up, they're not crippled.
THE EDGE: I think this team is good enough and been resilient all year in these kinds of situations after the oh-my-gosh-loss followed by here-we-go again with a couple of wins. They just can't seem to stack three in a row. So I like them here, especially being at home. BENGALS, 27-23
THE BOTTOM LINE
This is the swinging gate game of the season, right?
The Bengals win this one to go to 8-5 with four games left and the path to those 10 wins that should get you into the playoffs gets wider. Lose with a trip next week to Mile High, where it's never been easy for them, and Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes loom in back-to-back home-for-the-holiday games they need just as much as the Bengals.
But the Bengals are home Sunday and you figure the odds have to be with them a week after one West Coast team came east to catch them. And while the key injuries have come out of the woodwork in December, the 49ers are just as dinged.
With three of their top four linebackers out Sunday, the Bengals spent Saturday elevating two practice squad backers that have yet to take a snap this season for them in a game Joe Bachie, on the practice squad until late October, figures to make his first NFL start. That's tough duty against a top ten running game and a beastly tight end averaging 13.5 yards per catch and five touchdowns in one of the league's best, George Kittle.
Meanwhile, the Niners are almost as decimated at cornerback, where they are down to their backups. One of them, Josh Norman, leads the team in penalties on a defense that has the most pass interference yards in the league and the most overall penalty yards. The Bengals haven't had a 40-yard pass in November and December, but they're still tied for second in the league with ten after the Chargers jumped past them into first with their three last week at PBS. And Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (ankle) had a questionable week, but Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd are around to test Norman's 125.7 passer rating when targeted, which Next Gen stats says is third highest among cornerbacks with 200 coverage snaps.
So both quarterbacks have to protect their defenses with smart, efficient games. Burrow is fighting the interception bug with a league-high 14 picks while Jimmy G. has just eight. Both clearly have the big play at their disposal with the second and third best yards per attempt in the league and while Higgins had a questionable week, so did Niners' big play man Deebo Samuel after he missed last week.
You wonder why they're trying to run off Jimmy G. since he's got a pretty nice winning percentage since 2019, including playoffs, at 24-12. He lives off play-action. He's 7-7 when he throws it at least 30 times, which he did in losing his Super Bowl and last week against Seattle.
With the Bengals getting their starting offensive line back, the premium is on protecting Burrow's finger. Which is why all eyes are on Burrow Buckeye buddy Nick Bosa at defensive end and his matchup with Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams. Burrow got hurt last week on a sack strip from Williams' side and he'll need to defend against Bosa's 12 sacks in 12 games that PFF says is the sixth sack Williams has allowed this season.
Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson has his own massive matchup when he puts his NFL-best eight straight games with a sack against monstrous 49ers left tackle Trent Williams. Hendrickson leads the league with 60 pressures, Next Gen says, and PFF has Williams for just 14 while allowing only one sack.
Which sparked a question during the week. Would the Bengals ever move Hendrickson away from his right side in order to get a better matchup? Naturally, head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo wouldn't say what they would do Sunday.
"There may be a time and place for that," Anarumo said.
But the short answer seemed to be it is not 4:25 p.m. Sunday at PBS.
"It's just like going to brush your teeth with your left hand instead of your right," said Anarumo, who says he has talked to Hendrickson about it. "It's just not the same. It's as detailed as that for those elite edge rushers."
If this thing is going to be decided up front, then keep an eye on Bengals running back Joe Mixon.
In the spirit of a questionable week, he didn't practice with an illness all week and is listed as questionable. But Taylor sounded like he's a go. He'd be hard to keep off the field. He grew up in the Bay rooting for Frank Gore's 49ers. And when has 22 touches or more this season, the Bengals are 4-0. And they're 9-3 in his career when he hits 22 at PBS.