The Bengals head to Music City with the hope Joey B. Goode rocks them to their first ever road playoff victory in Saturday's (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) AFC Divisional in Nashville against Tennessee's top-seeded Titans.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable thinks it's a tough gig for Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in his second postseason start against a home team that is just two years removed from a run to the AFC title game.
The home contingent of Paul Kuharsky, who has been covering the Titans since they arrived as the Oilers in the mid-90s and runs Paul Kuharsky.com, and ESPN.com's Turron Davenport, an NFL reporter since the turn of the century, don't believe Burrow and his Bengals can withstand Tennessee's pressure in both trenches.
The Bengals view is split with The Athletic's Jay Morrison sensing Titans running back Derrick Henry is going to be too much for the Bengals devastated defensive line while CLNS media's Mike Petraglia believes the key to a Bengals win is running back Joe Mixon spicing up Burrow's historic run.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first:
There's going to be a fast start for the Titans. They're going to have to get out to an early lead and use the rushing attack to play defense and play keep away from the Bengals. What it's going to come down to is the Titans' front four is going to be able to get pressure with seven dropping into coverage. Joe Burrow has been pretty much unstoppable against the blitz, but the one kryptonite for him has been going against a team that can get pressure with the front four and the Titans have been able to do that with Harold Landry, Denico Autry as well as Bud Dupree and Jeffery Simmons. That front four has accounted for 35 sacks using just the four-man pressure and that has been the key for them. That's the second most sacks in the league in those situations.
They're not going to match cornerbacks with any particular receiver and they have to focus on keeping everything in front of them playing top down defense. It's about stopping Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase from getting yards after the catch and catching those fade routes, where he and Burrow are among the best in the league.
THE EDGE: The Titans jump out to an early lead, they get the Bengals to press a little bit and Joe Burrow throws an interception late that seals the deal. TITANS, 28-24
I think the Titans will probably find a way to run. Cincinnati's ranking in run defense is a little confusing based on the yards per attempt and yards they've given up in some games. The Titans are hell bent on running it. Henry probably does OK and gives them a boost. But even if he doesn't it, I think D'Onta Foreman has been really good in his absence. So some kind of combination of the running backs will have them run well enough to play the kind of game they want.
I think it will be close. If the Titans turn the ball over, they'll be in big trouble, which is an obvious thing to say. Same with Cincinnati. I wouldn't be surprised if there are turnovers. I expect a big play or two out of the Bengals, but maybe not enough to break it open.
THE EDGE: As good as he is, a young quarterback in his first postseason stringing a couple of games together is pretty remarkable and this Titans team is pretty experienced and pretty hungry and I think they'll make it at least one week more. TITANS, 24-21
I think the Bengals have a really good chance, but I don't know that it's going to happen. I feel like the rest the Titans had and Derrick Henry coming back, I think the Titans are going to be able to get ahead in this one and kind of ride that running game. I do think Joe Burrow can make it kind of interesting in the fourth quarter with the great finishes he's had the last few weeks. But I just don't know if they have enough to stop Derrick Henry.
The Bengals' fifth-rated run defense is kind of misleading. They struggle in games against good running attacks, particularly the Browns. Even last week, Raiders running back Josh Jacobs ran well and had some big holes to get through. I think the Titans offensive line is going to give them fits and losing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is a part of that and I just think Tennessee is going to be able to control the clock and the game. I don't think it's going to be a totally dominated Derrick Henry game, but I can see them having to sell out on the run and Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown breaking a short pass. I think Tennessee's play-action game is really going to work off Derrick Henry.
THE EDGE: Burrow is enough to keep it close, but unless they get out to a lead early and change the path of the game, I don't think they can't make up the clock. TITANS, 24-20
I see a tight one the whole way. I see Bengals running back Joe Mixon finding a way to run the ball in key situations, namely third -and-short. I think Mixon is going to have a bigger game than people expect against a Titans rush defense that is ranked in the top five. I think the Bengals are going to stick with the run early to try and set up some big plays to wide receivers Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase later in the game.
They'll find every possible way to load the box and make sure if he's getting three, four, five yards a pop, that's all he's getting. The way Derrick Henry can kill you, he not only punishes you but he breaks off 10- to 15-yard runs and that discourages the defense. When a lot of teams get tired of tackling him is when he breaks off these huge yards after contact. That's what the Bengals need to minimize on Saturday.
THE EDGE: The Bengals have more elite weapons on the outside to expose Tennessee's secondary and do more than Derrick Henry and his offense can do against the Bengals defense. It's going to be tight, but I like Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson over former Bengal Randy Bullock. BENGALS, 29-26
THE BOTTOM LINE
Earlier this week The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr., brilliantly dissected Burrow's historic stretch that began when head coach Zac Taylor publicly flogged himself for calling a second-down run play on the fringe of the red zone in the overtime of last month's loss to the 49ers. Since then, Burrow become the first Bengals quarterback to rack up a 100 passer rating with no interceptions in five straight games and that includes a win in last week's playoff debut.
(Compare his 70.4 completion percentage and 110 rating to some of the postseason debuts of the guys playing this weekend. Tom Brady had a 61.5 completion percentage and 70.4 passer rating in the Tuck Game the Pats won 20 years and a week ago. Aaron Rodgers hit 67 percent of his passes and went 121.4 in a 51-45 loss to the Cardinals 12 years ago. Saturday's foe, Ryan Tannehill, went 8 of 15 two years ago for 72 yards in Brady's last game as a Pat when his Titans won, 20-13.)
With Henry back in the lineup or not, Burrow probably has to play just as efficiently as he did last Saturday to become the fourth first- or second-year quarterback to win a road playoff game in the last ten seasons. (Elias has Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick each doing it in 2012 and John Wolford last season for the Rams.) The Titans are going to want to use the run to shorten the game and give Burrow seven or eight possessions instead of nine or ten.
According to Dehner, Burrow's streak of a 100 rating with no picks has been bettered only three times, Brady's eight in 2010, Matt Ryan's seven in 2016 and Wilson's six in 2019. Rodgers has a fiver going right now. The Titans definitely don't want their 25th rated pass defense to give Burrow a shot in the fourth quarter, where he has a 139.5 passer rating in the last five games.
It's all because he's not throwing picks, the last one coming against the Chargers 48 days ago. No brainer stat here. The Bengals are 10-1 under Burrow wining the turnover margin. One quiet stat here that's a bit mystifying. A steel-belted Titans team known for winning by letting you make the mistake is minus-three in turnovers to the Bengals' even.
So if this game is early 21st century NFL (Burrow's Zac Taylor-coached Bengals) vs. 1960s NFL (head coach Mike Vrabel's Derrick Henry-led Titans), the question isn't going to be if the Bengals are going to throw it against Tennessee's second-ranked run defense, but how are they going to throw it?
Probably three-step-drops-get-it-out-of his hand against the only NFL pass rush with three players with at least eight sacks: outside rusher Harold Landry with 12, tackle Jeffery Simmons with 8.5 and edge Denico Autry with nine. The Titans barely blitz, a little more than the Raiders, so will Burrow have time to diagnose seven-man drops? Left tackle Jonah Williams is coming off his best game as a Bengal and needs another one as Titans Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard lurks with 23 career picks and cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins with 27 more.
As much as we can't get enough Burrow, he's only going to get a shot if is his defense contains Henry and D'Onta Foreman on the ground. The fifth-ranked run offense vs the fifth-ranked run defense. Even with Larry Ogunjobi in there at tackle, though, the Bengals' fifth-ranked run defense was under scrutiny in allowing 4.3 yards per carry while giving up big games against the Chiefs (155), the Broncos (133), the Browns (153) and last week's 7.4 yards per against the Raiders.
But they do pretty well bowing up the red zone. Since they beat the Raiders back on Nov. 21, they've handled nine rushes for 30 yards with a couple of TFLs. Of course, Ogunjobi had one of them and they need to get some big efforts by everybody at all levels.
And they stood up against some of the NFL's best rushers. Steelers rookie Najee Harris was fourth in the league with 1,200 yards, but had only 63 yards on 23 carries against the Bengals. The Vikings' Dalvin Cook was fifth with 1,159, but had just 61 on 20 carries against Cincy. The two-headed Denver tandem of Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams averaged 4.5 per carry on the season, but were below that against the Bengals. The Chargers' Austin Ekeler, a 4.4 guy, went 4.2 vs. the Bengals on 14 carries. Maybe not dominant. But stingy effective.
Even though the Bengals' 31-20 win over Tennessee back on Nov. 1, 2020 at Paul Brown Stadium was basically between two different teams, there is an object lesson in there. A much more reduced Bengals defense allowed Henry not to go nuts with 112 yards on 18 carries. The key was the Bengals jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead and forced Tannehill to throw it 30 times instead of Henry running it 30 times.
Everyone's favorite/dreaded matchup is rookie kicker Evan McPherson vs. former Bengal Randy Bullock. Bullock was a huge fan target in parts of five seasons he missed some big kicks (Houston in '16 for one), but, to his credit, he always manned up and talk about them.
McPherson's got plenty to talk about with the greatest rookie season ever by a Bengal kicker. He's coming off a game he set the postseason team record for points (14) and field goals (four) and he's nine-for-11 from 50, already a Bengals career record. Bullock is one-for-one from 50 this year, 13 of 26 in his career, seven of 14 as a Bengal, so the numbers say he misses his next long one.