What was supposed to be a 15-round slugfest between NFL heavyweight rushers featuring Cincinnati's Joe Mixon and Tennessee's Derrick Henry may turn into a high-wire act pitting Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's pupils during Sunday's game at windy Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when red-hot rookie quarterback Joe Burrow takes his midterm against Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill's own scalding stretch.
With Mixon (foot) ruled out, the majority of the Bengals.com Media Roundtable believes Henry is going to be able to plant one of his big days on a Bengals defense that has made a stand in the last month against the running game.
Turron Davenport, the ESPN Titans reporter, has had a whirlwind 20 years in the league covering four teams while writing four books and wedging in a podcast (Talking With TD) and hosting a radio show with Nate Washington on ESPN Nashville's 102.5. He sees a whirlwind of points on both sides that end up with the Titans rebounding from last week's loss to the Steelers.
Pete Prisco, long-time NFL savant for CBS, has put his finger in the air to see how hard the wind is going to blow to gauge the score. He still sees a Tennessee win no matter the gusts, but he's unwavering in his belief that Burrow is going to be elite and the Bengals are going to contend.
Locally, two homegrown reporters who span the generations split on the verdict.
Wayne Box Miller, the Cincinnati radio staple out of Woodward High School who is currently the host of the Bengals Radio Network's pregame, halftime and postgame shows, sees Cincy's revved-up offense too much for the Titans' statistically-challenged defense.
The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith, the Seven Hills product who had to be carded to get in here as the youngest participant ever on The Table at not quite 22, is living the dream working for his hometown newspaper and completes a trifecta of a weekend covering the high school football playoffs, University of Cincinnati and a Bengals game he sees as tight but decided by Henry.
Let's go around The Table. As usual, visitors and the alphabet first.
I think it's going to be a bounce back game for the Titans. I feel as though this is an opportunity for them to run it and pass it. I wouldn't be surprised if running back Derrick Henry has over 150 yards, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has 300 yards passing and wide receiver A.J. Brown chips in with 100 yards receiving. I think they'll throw the ball initially to get that lead and then Henry runs the ball and later you'll see the play-action.
But at the same time I think this Bengals offense is very capable of scoring points. They should put 24-28 on the board, especially with Joe Burrow and how he's starting to connect with wide receiver A.J. Green. And you've got Tyler Boyd. Tee Higgins is going against the team he grew up watching, so it's going to be interesting to see that play out. I would say the Titans defense is average. The main problem is they struggle in two of the most important situations and those are third-down conversions and red zone. Both of those areas are just terrible.
THE EDGE: Too much firepower for the Bengals defense and also Derrick Henry being a closer. TITANS, 42-28.
If the wind isn't bad, I would think it would be a classic up and down game because I think the Titans have all kinds of defensive issues and so do the Bengals. If the wind's bad, that's going to be a problem for the Bengals because Henry will end up pounding the football.
He's a problem anyway, but the Steelers did a good job on him. Granted, the Bengals aren't the Steelers when it comes to run defense, but when they took him away that played to their advantage. Obviously, first and foremost if you choke off the run you're going to win the game.
The Titans aren't a good pass rush team. If there was ever a team you could take advantage of them because they don't rush the passer that well, it's this one. Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew put up big numbers against them. The Vikings put up big numbers against them and they're not good teams, so, yeah, I think the Bengals can throw the ball downfield against them.
Zac did a good job with Tannehill and I think Burrow is going to be a star. I think he's proven already to everybody that he has the makeup and the talent and the want to and everything else to be a star. For the Bengals, anything that happens this year, they have their quarterback. They should be as excited about that franchise as they've been in a long, long time. They will be a good team.
THE EDGE: Before I saw the weather, I thought it would be really high-scoring, something like 30-21. But with the wind, I think it's going to be a little lower and the Titans have enough to control the game. TITANS, 24-17
For me the big item is the Titans pass game. The Bengals have really sold out against the best rushing teams they've faced. Especially Baltimore. I'm interested to see how their pass defense holds up. It helps that cornerbacks William Jackson III and Darius Phillips are going to play, but Tannehill has elevated his game to another level and obviously the Bengals pass rush has been re-shaped recently. It will be interesting to see how Tannehill is able to perform against the Bengals.
There's no stopping Derrick Henry. But looking back at what the Bengals did against Baltimore, their game plan is going to be focused on making that happen. I do think the Bengals have added better run defenders in Xavier Williams and Amani Bledsoe that can help, but even as the coaches have said this week, Derrick Henry is one of the best running backs in the game for a reason and will be the priority to stop.
THE EDGE: I think the Bengals have proven they can keep it close with almost anybody. But they're still looking to get over that hump and the Titans are one of the best teams in the AFC. TTITANS, 30-24
It's a great opportunity for the Bengals to get a win because they're going against a defense that has struggled this season. I think you look for Tennessee to run the ball to eat up the clock as much as possible to keep the Bengals off the field knowing that their defense will probably struggle against a Joe Burrow-led team.
If it's windy, I think Cincinnati has an advantage. You'll see a lot of Derrick Henry regardless. I don't think the weather will change how they approach it. And I don't think it will change much what the Bengals do. All these guys have thrown and caught the ball in inclement weather. It's just making the appropriate adjustments. Look at the Bengals wide receivers. Tyler Boyd is from Pittsburgh. A.J. Green has been here double-digit years. Joe Burrow grew up in Athens, Ohio.
It's an opportunity for the team to re-establish an identity post-Carlos Dunlap. Whether they agree with the trade or don't agree with the trade, they are now in the trenches with the guys they are going forward with and it's an opportunity to a man to say we can still get the job done. The re-shuffled offensive line played well last week at the end of the game and they want to prove they belong. There are a lot of opportunities for people to make a statement. I wouldn't call it a statement game in terms of a must game, but I would call it a statement game for a lot of players who want to prove they belong.
THE EDGE: An upset. The Bengals offense is starting to get into gear and Tennessee's defense is still looking to get on track. BENGALS, 27-24.
THE BOTTOM LINE
They called it the Breezer Bowl back in the 2008 home opener when the Bengals and Titans played for three quarters in near Category One hurricane winds of more than 70 miles per hour as Paul Brown Stadium and its surroundings got caught in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and the Titans' Kerry Collins could combine for just 245 yards through the turbulent air. (In a game reffed by current NFL officiating head Al Riveron.)
It's not going to be like that Sunday, when the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, is calling for winds up to 25 miles per hour and gusts up to 35. But it could be enough to impact some big situational decisions and put more of an emphasis on the kicking game.
And the Bengals hope it doesn't exacerbate the loss of running back Joe Mixon in a showdown with the Titans' Henry, reigning NFL rushing champion and the current leader.
The 250-pound Henry is a game-wrecker. Two weeks ago he became the first NFL running back to have a 200-yard game in three straight seasons. In that same stretch the Bengals have allowed nine 200-yard games, but the good news is they're coming off a month they've kept teams under 100 yards on the ground in three of the last four games despite a stunning array of injuries to their defensive front.
The problem has been a non-existent pass rush of one sack in the past two games that have allowed quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Baker Mayfield to light them up with Rivers having the best half of his career and Mayfield competing what amounted to 22 straight passes that included five touchdowns.
And Tannehill is having a far better season than those two with 15 touchdowns and just two picks while amassing a 112.3 passer rating. He doesn't throw all that much (he's 20th in attempts), but when he does, he's top ten in completion percentage and touchdowns and downright lethal on play-action passes.
Complicating matters for the Bengals pass rush in their first-post Dunlap game is Tannehill's NFL-best 11.2 yards per attempt on play-action passes, according to Pro Football Focus. Thanks to Henry, Tannehill's passer rating is even better on those 77 plays (118.2) and the Titans' pass protection is eighth in allowing sacks per pass.
Giving the Bengals defense a lift is the return of their best cover cornerback in William Jackson III after he missed last week's game with a concussion as the Bengals stalk Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown and his four touchdowns, one on a 73-yard play. Also playing for the Bengals is backup cornerback Phillips (knee) after a minimal week of practice.
As many headaches as Henry and Tannehill give the Bengals, the Titans have to also be losing some sleep preparing for Burrow and his variety of weapons coming off last week's effort six of them grabbed at least 50 yards on passes for the first time in Bengals history.
Even though they didn't have Mixon last week, the Bengals got the ball in the red zone seven times, their most in a game in eight years. Their offense is 28th in red-zone conversions for touchdowns, but only 13 teams have been in there more than they have and the Titans are next to last in allowing touchdowns inside their 20.
Plus, the Titans are dead last on third down and in the last two games Burrow and Co. have ripped off first downs 54 percent of the time. Although Bengaldom is on edge with young tackles Hakeem Adeniji and Fred Johnson making their first NFL starts at left and right, respectively, the Titans are generating the third fewest sacks in the league per pass.
Throw in that Football Outsiders has the Bengals' kicking game ranked 11th with the Titans coming in next-to-last and the numbers suggest there could be more out there Sunday than just wind.