In Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Philadelphia, two of the most highly drafted quarterbacks of the last five seasons meet in a showdown most likely decided by their embattled defenses.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable notes that Cincinnati's Joe Burrow is a rookie on the verge of greatness and that the Eagles' Carson Wentz has been playing far below the greatness predicted for him before a torn ACL kept him from being named NFL MVP in his second season.
But The Table doesn't see Burrow getting his first NFL victory Sunday because he's on the road again. Wentz can't be expected to keep missing the broad side of the barn for a completion percentage now mired at 58.8 and the Bengals still don't have Geno Atkins in the middle of their defense.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports has predicted Burrow leads the Bengals to two Super Bowl titles in the next ten seasons (much to the delight of his co-workers that have hash-tagged him to smithereens on the call), but not on Sunday when he sees Wentz getting better. Paul Domowitch, The Philadelphia Inquirer's long-time estimable Bird watcher, doesn't know how the Bengals defense can keep Wentz down or Burrow in the game.
Locally, two ESPNers, one former and one current, just don't know if the Bengals defense can get the stop it needs. James Rapien, of Sports Illustrated, who broke into the business in his hometown (Cincinnati's St. Bernard High School) on WLW and ESPN 1530, thinks a couple of big plays by the hungry Bengals receivers could even it up. Ben Baby, ESPN.com's Bengals beat reporter, is struck how the struggles against the run mirror what happened early last season.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first:
The Eagles have looked so bad and it's hard to believe that Carson Wentz is going to play as badly as he has the first two weeks. I just can't see that against the Bengals. The Eagles will run the ball down their throats because they've got Miles Sanders back and I watched the Browns game and the Bengals can't stop the run to save their lives.
The Eagles defense got their butt kicked by the Rams and head coach Sean McVay and the fact they're going against a similar type of offense, you would think they'd be a little bit more prepared this week.
They'll go 12 personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers, one running back) like they did last week on 54 of 69 snaps. The tight ends are what they've got. They went with DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor at wide receiver and now Reagor is out for six weeks, so I don't know who will be that second wide receiver.
The Eagles haven't been good against the run. They've kind of ignored linebackers and don't have much there and you could see that when the Rams killed them with misdirection runs.
Their idea of bringing in Javon Hargrave at defensive tackle was to have three good interior rushers and flush the quarterback out of the pocket. But they haven't played well and it doesn't look like five-time Pro Bowl tackle Fletcher Cox is going to play. Washington might be the worst team in the league and the fact these guys gave up a 17-0 lead to them is kind of an indication of what's in store for them.
THE EDGE: The Eagles are due. Carson Wentz isn't as bad as he's looked the past two weeks. EAGLES, 38-17
The Eagles are not playing great football, but they're a better team. They're at home. I think they'll find a way. I think Wentz gets it cranked up a little bit.
I think it's going to be as high-scoring game. I think both teams will score points. Neither team is great on defense and I don't think the Eagles have played their best offense yet. Getting guys back healthy again will help. Reagor is out, but the guys back on the offensive line will help.
On the other side of the ball, look, Joe Burrow is going to make some plays. The Bengals have to get running back Joe Mixon going. He's catching passes, but he has to get it going in the running game. This might be the week that they do that, so I do think a lot of points.
THE EDGE: The Eagles are better than they've played. EAGLES, 30-24
The biggest question for me this week is what the middle of that Bengals defensive line is going to look like. Geno Atkins won't play. Zac Taylor says Mike Daniels will, but he didn't practice all week. Last week the Browns offensive line really got to the second level and eliminated the linebackers.
The Bengals just don't have the depth to be solid in the middle and there were troubling signs with the linebackers not really in position to make plays. They were hurt by misdirection. It was almost a carbon copy of week two against San Francisco last year where they hit them with misdirection and took advantage of huge gaps. The score wasn't as lopsided but it almost felt that way. The staff has really emphasized they need Geno and Mike, especially after they lost so much depth at that spot in training camp.
On offense, the Bengals need to find the deep ball with A.J. Green. Look at the targets. A.J. has been their deep threat option so far and when they haven't been able to connect you can see the field compress. The Browns did such a good job dropping into a zone and giving them the underneath and that matched up well with the Browns eating clock with their ground game. A.J. just needs to trust himself a little bit more in finishing those routes well and make the plays we're used to seeing him make and that will help open things up and you'll see better play from this Bengals offense.
THE EDGE: The things that plagued the Bengals in week two, I don't think those are easy fixes given all the talk and chatter we've had with the sense of disconnect on the defensive side of the ball. There's no reason for Philadelphia not to follow the blueprint of what everyone else did last week and, really, last year, and run it down the middle with misdirection until the Bengals prove they can stop it. EAGLES 27-21
I think it's going to look a lot like the Bengals' matchup last week and come down to a lot of the same things they had to deal with against the Browns.
No. 1, can they slow down Miles Sanders and that Eagles rushing attack? The Eagles have their own issues on the offensive line, but if you can stop Sanders or at least contain him, then you're making a struggling quarterback have to beat you. Which is actually what I think they wanted to do against Baker Mayfield last week in Cleveland, but he got going early. Especially early, that's the key on defense.
With Reagor out, it's DeSean Jackson and the tight ends. So how do the Bengals young linebackers match up against maybe the best tight end duo in the league in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert?
Offensively, Joe Burrow has talked about it all week. Just getting the ball downfield and trying to get some big plays. This receiving unit is too talented. You've got Green, Tyler Boyd. You've got all these guys. I expect them to make some plays. Tee Higgins even said it. "We've got to make some contested catches." Can these receivers go up and make some plays? Really, outside of cornerback Darius Slay, I think the Eagles secondary is beatable. I expect some big plays on offense and that would take pressure off the defense.
THE EDGE: It's going to come down to you don't have Geno and Mike Daniels hasn't practiced. When you need to get a stop, I'm not sure they're going to be able to do it. Jake Elliott at the gun. EAGLES 23-20
THE BOTTOM LINE
Leave it to Rapien, the Cincinnati Kid, to raise the specter of Elliott. It's his first game against the Bengals since they drafted him in the fifth round three years ago and cut him when he lost the training camp battle with Randy Bullock. Elliott hooked on with the Eagles a few weeks later and is still there with a clutch Super Bowl field goal under his belt to go with a career percentage of 83.7.
Bullock is still a Bengal, too, and in the wake of a disaster of an opener in which he missed a chip shot to put it into overtime after mis-hitting a kickoff, he rebounded big time last week in Cleveland on a three-for-three effort that gives him an 86 percentage since he's been with the Bengals. If he hits his next three he'll pass Shayne Graham on the club's all-time accuracy list.
But if Sunday's game comes down to the last snap with Bullock or Elliott, the direction of the game is going to be decided in the Bengals' first couple of defensive series.
And beyond that, do you think Bengals head coach Zac Taylor spent time commiserating this week with mentor Sean McVay?
Last week, McVay, the Rams head coach, piloted an attack that pounded the Eagles for 191 yards on the ground in a 37-19 victory while torching Philly's suspect linebackers with quarterback Jared Goff's play-action passes. He gave it to his running backs 26 times for a yard per of 5.4 (several of them misdirection runs) while also putting it in the hands of wide receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp a total of five other times for nearly eight yards a pop off of jet sweeps and the like.
Misdirection runs and jet sweeps are the kinds of rushing attempts that have given the Bengals defense fits the past couple of seasons and the Browns used misdirection to their advantage last week.
But apparently the Eagles struggle with it, too. While Taylor's vision is to have a Rams-like scheme, his Bengals aren't at that level yet with a rookie quarterback, a young offensive line and a running game still trying to find its identity.
But you have to feel Taylor would love to unleash running back Joe Mixon on the Eagles after second-year Rams running back Darrell Henderson, coming into the season with 39 career yards, beat them up for 81 yards on 12 carries. The killer was a 40-yard cut back up the middle off misdirection. Maybe the fleet of Bengals fleet receivers can do what Woods and Kupp did last week.
And then there is the height matchup in the secondary that favors the Bengals. The 6-0 Darius Slay has traveled with the foes' best receiver in the first two games, so he figures to get A.J. Green. Slot cornerback Nickell Robey- Coleman, 5-8, 180 pounds, is matched against the Bengals' 6-2, 203-pound Tyler Boyd. The Eagles' other starting outside cornerback, Avonte Maddox, goes 5-9 and he'll cross paths with the 6-4 Tee Higgins and 5-11 Ross, not to mention 6-1 Mike Thomas.
Sounds like a good game to activate the 6-5 Auden Tate, but even if they don't Burrow has shown no problem giving his guys chances on 50-50 balls and there's a 100-pecent chance they need to come out of this with a pass longer than 23 yards to a wide receiver. A leaping, contested 50-yard catch just could open the floodgates for a group of wide receivers that doesn't have a catch longer than 17 yards.
But they can't get behind, which is why the Bengals' first couple of defensive series is going to dictate how this one goes.
If they miss their wake-up call, come out like statues and let Wentz get out of pocket so he can regain his confidence that appears to be shot by flipping his first couple of easy throws for something like five of his first five, long day.
And it's not going to be easy. The young Bengals linebackers, reeling from last week's welcome to the NFL moment in Cleveland, now have to tussle with what may be the NFL's best pair of tight ends.
They also have the same problem up front. No Geno and they don't know how much Daniels can give them. That's apparently why they called up tackle Khalil McKenzie from the practice squad on Saturday, making it the third straight game they've called up a young defensive lineman for help on the eve of the kickoff. Amani Bledsoe made his NFL debut in the opener and McKenzie, who has been in the NFL for two years as a guard, is expected to make his NFL debut against the Eagles. When the Bengals signed him in the midst of their injuries at D-tackle three weeks ago, they switched him back to his college position.
The Bengals have Burrow on their side. A game-changer getting better with every snap. But he needs a hand before and after the ball leaves his hand on Sunday. Just like Wentz.