Sunday's Duel in the Sun (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) is expected to unfold before a full house at Paul Brown Stadium when Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow pits his aura against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' artistry.
At the end of a week Burrow's mic'd-up-give-me-the-ball calm has been compared to Joe Montana's West Coast cool, Rodgers comes to a building with his Hall-of-Fame heat in a matchup of passer ratings in triple digits. The Bengals.com Media Roundtable calls it closely but decisively.
Although The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called an audible late last season and switched the versatile and talented Jim Owczarski from the Packers so he could cover the Bucks' run to the NBA title, he's been a friend of The Table ever since his three-year term covering the Bengals at The Cincinnati Enquirer. Owczarski, who wrote the definitive story of the 1992 Bengals-Packers game that spawned Brett Favre while he was at The Enquirer, sees a good day for Favre's successor.
So does Pete Dougherty, a columnist for the Green Bay Press Gazette and Pro Football Hall of Fame selector who has been covering the Packers since the season after Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie sent Don Majkowski to the Lambeau Field bench.
Like their Green Bay counterparts, the Cincinnati contingent sees Rodgers and Burrow putting on a competitive show in which the veteran ekes out a win. Laurel Pfahler of The Dayton Daily News thinks the Packers' trio of offensive stars could be a little much for the Bengals while James Rapien of Sports Illustrated's AllBengals.com can't see Burrow getting to the magic number.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first.
I wouldn't have thought the game would be this competitive when the season was starting. I think the Packers are still ahead of the Bengals at this point. When you discount their game against the Saints, the Packers have been good both defensively and offensively and they just seem to be a little more in a rhythm. The Bengals have been starting off a little slow in games and if that happens again Sunday that's going to have an impact. A lot of hope lies in Joe Burrow, but in this one Aaron Rodgers is the more veteran quarterback.
THE EDGE: Even though both defenses have been playing well, it's going to come down to who makes the last stop. The Bengals are going to be right there in it, but in the end the Packers have a little more going for them. PACKERS, 30-28
It's a great matchup with a really good older quarterback and a really good young one. I think the Packers are going to have trouble stopping him and probably the best thing the Packers can do is try and run the ball a lot and keep their defense off the field and get up early so they can play with the lead. It's a lot easier to play defense from ahead.
I think the Packers are really starting to get their offensive identity and they're looking to run the ball more and more and its working. But I think the Bengals are a talented, up-and-coming team and Burrow looks pretty good to me. Without cornerback Jaire Alexander, the Packers have to cover up for the secondary and it's not like they have this awesome pass rush that can take over the game. They have decent rushers, but they're not going to overwhelm you. I have to think the Bengals get their share of points.
THE EDGE: Rodgers was as good as ever in training camp and after the horrendous Saints game he's been pretty good and when it comes down to winning the game, that's what he's done his whole career. Win games. PACKERS, 31-28
If the Bengals play mistake free, they're going to be in the game even if Joe Mixon can't play or doesn't play much. If you look at the Packers' three wins, they've been tight games where the opponents have ended up making the vital mistakes. In San Francisco Jimmy Garoppolo snaps the ball with 12 seconds left on the play clock. Detroit winning at halftime then loses it on second-half turnovers. Against Pittsburgh Minkah Fitzpatrick drops a gift interception. What happens? Touchdown right after that. Aaron Rodgers at this point in his career may give you one or two, but if you don't catch it, he's still good enough to make you pay.
That's the takeaway for a Bengals team even without one of its best offensive players. Joe Burrow has proven the Bears game was an anomaly with three interceptions. And the Packers haven't shown much pressure, so I think the Bengals have to test the Packers corners. Jaire Alexander is a Pro Bowl level guy and they don't have much experience behind him. The Bengals have an edge in the skill positions.
THE EDGE: I always said this when I was covering the Bengals for The Enquirer. If I think if it's close, I'm going to go with the better quarterback and right now Aaron Rodgers is still the best quarterback. But it's right there for the Bengals. PACKERS, 27-24
The key is the Bengals offense. Can the offense fully unleash and unlock with Burrow? They may not have Joe Mixon and you're looking at maybe 40-plus attempts potentially from Burrow for the first time this season. Can he get to 30 points? I think that's the magic number going against guys like Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. I think they can survive that many passes because of how wired Burrow is and how dialed in he is right now. Yeah, he'll take some hits, but he's going to know when they're coming and when they're not. I think they might have to and watch out for rookie running back Chris Evans because I think he could be a big part of what they do on offense.
On the flip side, good luck containing guys like Rodgers and Adams. You have to bracket Adams and get some heat on Rodgers. If Trey Hendrickson and D.J. Reader can win up front for the Bengals and their secondary is pretty healthy, you feel good about maybe forcing a turnover or two.
THE EDGE: I just don't know if the Bengals can get to the 30 mark. PACKERS, 31-27
THE BOTTOM LINE
Given how the Bengals have stayed in three terrific games with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers down through the years, you would have thought one of the themes of the week would have been keeping Rodgers off the field with a grinding possession game
But since the Bengals have a magic man of their own in Joe Burrow, maybe the sense is they can match him. Especially since it is their banged-up defense the Packers are supposedly looking to protect with a possession game of their own in the absence of their best cover player, cornerback Jaire Alexander, and best pass rusher, outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.
Or maybe since Rodgers is facing his third different version of the Bengals during his career, not to mention his third different Bengals franchise quarterback, it just doesn't much matter how the Bengals beat him in 2009 and 2013 and took him into overtime into 2017.
Still, history can never mislead you, so it's not a bad map to peruse.
When Carson Palmer beat Rodgers at Lambeau in '09 ( one of the biggest wins of the Marvin Millennium in the wake of the Denver Debacle in the opener), he threw it just 23 times, they ran it 31 times and running Cedric Benson's 141 yards kept the thing for nearly 34 minutes in a 31-24 win.
When Andy Dalton beat Rodgers in A-Rod's only appearance at The Paul in 2013, the Bengals didn't need to beat the clock. A return TD always takes care of that. They ran it just 20 times and had it barely 28 minutes, but Michael Johnson's forced fumble that turned into Terence Newman's 58-yard touchdown return transformed a 30-27 loss into a 34-30 win.
Then four years ago in the hottest game ever at Lambeau they held rookie running back Joe Mixon's coming out party with 62 yards on 18 carries and the Bengals had the ball five more minutes but still couldn't stave off what turned out to be the first overtime win of Rodgers' career. Mixon led a ground game that accounted for 112 yards on 28 carries by three different backs, Dalton had a big 21 of 27 day and another defensive return, cornerback William Jackson's pick-six, appeared to doom Rodgers again.
But talk about Rodgers making you pay. The Bengals came within a yard of salting it away as the clock ticked under four minutes. Holding a 21-17 lead and starting from his own nine, Mixon melted six minutes on five carries for 30 yards until he slipped on third-and-one and the Bengals had to settle for a field goal. Seven minutes later it was over. It is left to the Stat Mastersons of the NFL to find out how many times a team had the ball 34 minutes and a pick-six and lost. Rodgers can do that to you.
You can learn that in any era. Rodgers can make a mistake hurt and do it in a hurry. Just go back two weeks ago to the 49ers clock mismanagement.
Ironically, how much Mixon is going to be available on Sunday is a bit unknown. He's questionable with an ankle injury after not practicing last week, but they didn't call up practice squad running back Trayveon Williams so head coach Zac Taylor is going to let the Packers find put on Sunday if he's just saving him for short-yardage and goal line, or spotting him in a back-by-committee or unleashing him. Maybe it will be another rookie running back's coming out party. Chris Evans is still looking for his first NFL carry.
Even more intriguing is that Taylor is looking across the field at one of his best friends in the business, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. Scheme-wise, they're gazing in a mirror with a lot of bunch formations, crossers and picks and a run game based in the wide zone.
Philosophically, Taylor may be headed to the same place. The Packers have made no bones about their running game being a key complement for Rodgers with two active and dangerous backs. Aaron Jones, a 5-9, 208-pound slasher, is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and averages five yards per carry in his career. The 247-pound AJ Dillon is blowing it up this season banging for 4.5 yards per carry. And the Bengals have acknowledged the Packers offensive line is well coached and reliable in the same kind of blocking scheme the Bengals run.
So while Trae Waynes and Chidobe Awuzie give Taylor his first healthy tandem of starting cornerbacks since Oct. 13, 2019, it could be decided by how the Bengals defensive line faces its latest test against the run. So far so good. They're ranked ninth defending the rush, but the Packers have the best pair of backs they've seen.
It's kind of strange to hear a team coming in talking about keeping the Bengals off the field. But that's where this thing is headed with Burrow, completing 73 percent of his passes on 9.2 yards per throw, facing a secondary without its best cover cornerback and already yielding a 100.2 passer rating to opponents.
If there's the temptation to fling it without Alexander covering and Za'Darius Smith rushing, the Packers have assembled a top ten 18 QB knockdowns. But Taylor has been happy with what a balanced offense is doing for Burrow. In the last two games he's mixed up spread and heavy packages, as well as shot gun and under center looks. After Burrow was sacked nine times and hit 16 in the first two games, it is one and three, respectively, with 39 runs mixed with 50 passes in the last two games.
And the two best completion percentages of his career.
Maybe if you want to see how the Duel in the Sun goes on the PBS boards, check the clock and not the score.