The Bengals and Dolphins, both 3-1, weren't supposed to be here near the top of the AFC and when they meet Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12; click here for tickets) at Paul Brown Stadium they're still in the shadow of their respective franchises' gold-standard games as Cincinnati Steels for next week's Brawl in the Paul and Miami tries to rebound from last week's implosion to the Patriots.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable is all in on the Cincinnati offense and unanimously agrees it has enough to out-point any quick strikes generated by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and his fleet of fleet backs and receivers.
Paul Dehner, Jr., The Cincinnati Enquirer's game day captain as veteran lead Bengals scribe, has spent the week chronicling how this Bengals team is developing a knack to pull out any kind of game and that's what he sees Sunday. Richard Skinner, the voluminous digital columnist and editor for Cincinnati's Channel 12, thinks the Bengals offense is too hot for Miami to beach.
Armando Salguero, The estimable Miami Herald columnist whose voice ranges from the AFC East to Canton as South Florida's Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, believes the Bengals are healthier and more dangerous in the trenches. Jim Trotter, the intrepid NFL Network reporter who once infiltrated the Iron Curtain of the scouting combine when the Chargers club he was covering had the No. 1 pick, sees the Bengals besting the Dolphins because they're operating at a higher level on both sides of the ball.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first and then the alphabet:
The Dolphins offensive line is injured and the Bengals defensive line has Geno Atkins. I don't like that matchup for the Dolphins. Bad day at the office. They lost starting center Daniel Kilgore two games after they lost starting left guard Josh Sitton.
And it's not good on the other line of scrimmage where defensive end Cameron Wake hasn't practiced and is doubtful, where end Andre Branch is dinged up and barely practiced this week and where they lost end William Hayes to an ACL tear. Wake has been banged up for a couple of weeks now and he didn't exactly light it up against the Patriots last week.
They expected more from the pass rush when they signed end Robert Quinn in free agency, but he and Wake have combined for just two sacks and they haven't shown the consistency they were looking for there.
Head coach Adam Gase and quarterback Ryan Tannehill have been together for 17 games and are 11-6. Obviously Tannehill is a much better quarterback than he was under current Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, but at this point he's not near elite. He's good enough if you put talented people around him, but they're all coming off bad games against New England.
No question they have great speed at running back in Kenyan Drake, who runs a 4.3. They have great speed on the outside with receivers Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant. That has led to explosive plays but not consistent plays. They lived the first few weeks on explosive plays, but it's not been sustainable and last week they ran across a team in New England that played disciplined football, didn't let them exploit the trick plays, limited them and kept them behind the sticks and it worked with a much better game plan than the Dolphins.
The Miami defense has good safeties. Pro Bowler Reshad Jones is back after missing the last two games with a shoulder injury and T.J. McDonald is a big hitter. Their first-round pick, Minkah Fitzpatrick, replaced Jones but now he's back in the slot. One starting cornerback, Bobby McCain, is out.
THE EDGE: The Bengals should be favored and should win. They should dominate the line of scrimmage on defense and the Dolphins defensive line is so banged up maybe they can't take advantage of the Bengals' revamped offensive line. BENGALS, 24-21
Credit to Marvin Lewis and his staff and his players for getting the Bengals off to a 3-1 start that's outperformed what many on the outside thought. And you can almost say the same thing about Miami up until that loss last week to New England. It's an interesting game, but if there's one team that seems to be in more of a rhythm it's the Bengals.
Andy Dalton is playing really well. They're playing well in all facets. I agree their defensive line is so good it gives them the edge in many games. Flipping the script to Miami, one of the disappointing things to me is they lost defensive lineman William Hayes, an integral part of what they do, to an injury that came about because of the uncertainty of how to tackle the quarterback. That's tragic for Miami and his loss is a contrast to what the Bengals have going on up front.
But, and I know they're tired hearing this but they're going to have to get used to it. It's time for the Bengals to win a post-season game. All the stuff they do in the regular season is a means to an end and I applaud them for getting to the dance to be able to dance. But you can't be 0-7 and think people aren't going to focus on it as the season goes on.
THE EDGE: Cincinnati is the more solid team now. The Dolphins tend to get behind early and try to rally. I don't think they'll be able to do that against a team that is playing at a more efficient level. BENGALS, 23-17.
The Dolphins are fast and if there's one way to get beat it is over the top and these guys demoralize you with those kinds of plays. The way the Bengals defense has played this year, that should be a primary concern. Not being able to get off the field and giving them too many chances to hit home runs. It's an interesting matchup because I'm curious how concerned the Bengals will be with the home-run ball. Maybe too concerned and will Miami be willing to take doubles? I'm interested to see that chess match work out.
But I don't think any of it matters. Doubles and home runs all score when you can't get off the field. It's just been so bad and so surprising what the Bengals have done on third down this year. I think they're at the point with everything else in place for them; it's the defining aspect of whether this team is going to be somebody or just an average Joe. Third down.
I don't know if that's where WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict makes the difference. He'll win you a game or two every year with some play-making. In my opinion he's not making you significantly better consistently over the course of a season. I don't know if he's going to change the way you are as a defensive whole in the big picture.
What decides this one I think is probably the Bengals defense just keeping Tannehill under control. Not letting him go nuts. There are a lot of Tannehill-Dalton similarities in the way he's viewed nationally in the sense he's forgotten. But when you look at it Tannehill has won a lot of games when he's played. He's actually played fairly well, but no one talks about the Dolphins and he hasn't had a post-season moment. Injuries have prevented that. Head coach Adam Gase seems to be getting something out of him. So he's discounted. But I'm curious to see what a full season with him and Gates together ends up looking like. They're 10-2 in the last 12 games they've been together and he hit 73 percent of his passes in the first three weeks. It's not like there hasn't been some success there.
THE EDGE: The Bengals offense just has something nice going. The Dolphins defense has really struggled against the pass. With Mixon back and Burfict back there's a lot of momentum there. This is the classic trap game, though.
High emotional win the previous week. Pittsburgh next. Miami is unknown, but talented. Still, the Bengals have proven they can make big plays to win games and they've proven they have the belief they can win those games. So even if there's a slow start or a lull, which we've seen pretty much every game, they seem to have the ability to pull themselves out of it and I think they have the ability to do that Sunday. Let's just keep hitting the same score. BENGALS, 34-23.
The Dolphins are fast, but they've just faced a defense predicated on speed in Atlanta and ran up and down the field on them. I think right now this Bengals offense; you have to start putting them in the upper echelon of the league. Yeah, Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley and Margus Hunt, too, gave right tackle Bobby Hart a little bit of trouble. But for the most part, as much as they've thrown the ball, that offensive line has protected really, really well. You do that I don't see this offense any week scoring less than 24-27 points.
The Bengals defense can't get anyone off the field on third down and we've all asked Marvin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin multiple questions and the prevailing theme seems to be they just have to be better. Maybe their grasping at straws, but I don't think you need this defense to be great if this offense continues to play this way. You just need to make a little bit of an improvement to where you're not playing every game down to the wire. Even the Baltimore game. The defense let them back in it after the offense had a lull. But I can't believe this defense doesn't make an incremental improvement. This team's not going to give up 60 percent on third down for a whole season. No team does that. It will even out. You do that, this is a tough team.
Look back at one game the Dolphins won and their offense scored on some gadget plays, which is OK, but you're not winning games with a lot of gadget stuff. You still have to do some solid things and I just don't think they have enough weapons to do that.
THE EDGE: I don't think the Dolphins offense is great, but until I see some marked improvement from the Bengals defense it's hard to think teams aren't going to score on them. But with this Bengals offense, there are just too many weapons. And whatever they get out of running back Joe Mixon coming back, and it may be a lot, we don't know that yet, it could be a lot. So if you get just something back there's another huge weapon back in the fold. Even though they lost tight end Tyler Eifert I think they'll be fine. No wide receiver John Ross, but I think you can put Tyler Boyd anywhere, you can put A.J. Green anywhere, find me any third wide receiver to stick out there anywhere and I think they'll still be productive. BENGALS, 31-20.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you're a resident of Bengaldom, you get a little uneasy because the Bengals have a recent history of letting must home game wins slip away from them on big plays from QBs their defense is supposed to contain.
Go back to 2015 and the Texans' T.J. Yates stunning them on a 22-yard TD to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins early in the fourth quarter despite blanket coverage by Adam Jones. Or the 2016 home opener against the Broncos being turned when Trevor Siemian hit Emmanuel Sanders on a 41-yard TD bomb. Or even the 2017 season opener against Baltimore's Joe Flacco, a fine QB they usually defend but they never recovered when he hit them with a 48-yard TD pass to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.
And the Dolphins have enough firepower with their speed to tip a tight game with a gadget play or a pop from 4.3-40 running back Kenyan Drake or a bomb to burner Kenny Stills, just like the 74-yarder he and quarterback Ryan Tannehill pulled off on the second snap of the last game the clubs played in 2016.
That was the only score for Tannehill that night, but he's playing better than he did then. He's the NFL's seventh-rated quarterback with a 106.1 passer rating, has the seventh best completion percentage at 69.1 and is sixth in yards per attempt with 8.37. He leads the Bengals' Andy Dalton in all those categories, but nobody thinks Tannehill is playing better than Dalton. Not with Dalton's two fourth-quarter road comebacks and 11 TD passes, tied for second most in the league.
It's a more than intriguing matchup. The word in Miami is that Tannehill is playing better under current Dolphins head coach Adam Gase than he did under Bill Lazor, the Bengals current offensive coordinator. And yet Lazor, along with his quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, has revived Dalton's career. Lazor's scheme, brilliantly taking advantage of Dalton's quick mind and quick release, has got Dalton playing 2105 confident and has the Bengals' once punch-less offense fourth in the league in scoring.
It's a funny game. Salguero wrote in this week's Miami Herald that Lazor wanted more from Tannehill's instincts and save a play if it broke down. And that's exactly what Dalton is doing. Winning on instincts.
Lazor is patiently trying to protect his overhauled offensive line and he's done a nice job changing Dalton's launch point while Dalton is showing off his athleticism out of the pocket when plays break down.
The challenge for them both Sunday against the Dolphins is keeping up with their 31 points per game average without tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Giovani Bernard and wide receiver John Ross against a defense that has a NFL-best nine interceptions. Gone is the ability of Bernard and Ross to score at anytime from anywhere on the field and Eifert's knack of destroying defenses down the seam. Remember, they scored just 10 points after Eifert went down on the first series of the second half.
But running back Joe Mixon, who was the NFL's second-leading rusher when he got a knee scope three weeks ago, is back. Even if they don't play him as much as they will next week, Miami native and rookie running back Mark Walton gives them a Gio-type look and the Dolphins are one starting cornerback down (Bobby McCain) against a wide receiver tandem of A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd each on pace for 1,000 yards.
And, Bernard and Ross weren't on the field for the bulk of that last drive in Atlanta.
Remember when people were shocked when then-Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph covered Green one-on-one in 2016 and Green ended up torching cornerback Xavien Howard for many of his 173 yards? You figure Sunday they'll dare the banged-up Bengals running backs to beat them with Ross out of the game and two-time Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones back in the lineup. But Howard is two years older and now comes in leading the league in interceptions with three.
Still, Miami's pass rushers are limping, Bengals' role players like tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft have had an impact this season, as has back-up wide receiver Alex Erickson, and the Dolphins have allowed four passes of at least 40 yards, or one per game.
Plus, the Bengals defense gets back their best player in WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and even if he can't play half the snaps, he makes them better. The first game with him and middle linebacker Preston Brown should mean the Dolphins won't be able to dominate the running game with Drake and future Hall-of-Famer Frank Gore.
That's going to put pressure on a Dolphins' offensive line missing two of their interior players and the Bengals are hoping their pass rushers take the cue instead.
The Bengals should carry the day with Dalton cool executing Lazor's playbook backed by an edge in the trenches but, be careful. Miami's speed is seconds away from turning around the game, maybe most effectively in the return game.
Wide receiver Jakeem Grant leads the NFL in kick returns with a 102-yard TD to his credit and the Bengals special teams are coming off a sloppy performance that allowed a 53-yard kick return and a blocked punt last week in Atlanta. So, naturally, under their current coordinator the Dolphins have the most blocked punts in the league since 2011 with ten.
But Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is an excellent coach, too, and it's hard to see them having two straight bad kicking games. Consider during his ten seasons in the league Kevin Huber has had just four punts blocked.
The paper trail says Bengals. As long as they don't let speed re-write it.