A lot can happen in 33 days. Andy Dalton's absence as the Bengals quarterback has coincided with the Jets' supersonic emergence in the AFC pairing two of the hottest young players on either side of the ball in quarterback Sam Darnold and safety Jamal Adams. Dalton seeks to be the streak-breaker Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium with a win that breaks the Bengals' 13-game losing streak and New York's three-game winning.
This week's Bengals.com Media Roundtable is one of those good guy gatherings, stacked with highly accomplished NFL chroniclers that don't act like it.
It's anchored by two members of the Syracuse University class of 1985; long-time Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard and ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, who has covered the Jets through the three decades from former Bengals Bruce Coslet to Jordan Willis. Cimini surmises it is the first time he's been around a round table with Hoard since the days they sat around Fagan's on the 'Cuse's iconic Marshall Street when he was the pride of The Daily Orange and Hoard was the bullhorn of WAER-FM.
Paul Dehner, Jr., senior writer for The Athletic who has blanketed Dalton's career, made the right call on Darnold as he sifted through the current crop of young quarterbacks at the beginning of the season. Bob Glauber, who has been an influential voice in New York and the league as an NFL columnist for Newsday since 1992, delved into Bengals history in his book "Guts and Genius," when he profiled former Bengals assistant Bill Walsh along with Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs as "three unlikely coaches," that changed the game in the 1980s.
Let's go around The Table:
The Jets should be able to run the ball and I think that's going to be a big factor. The Bengals run defense is bad and the Jets rushing offense has not been good, but I think they're hoping to get running back Le'Veon Bell untracked. He has not gone over 70 yards in any game this season and he's only averaged four yards a carry in two games. I think there were some glimmers of hope last week against the Raiders and I think they're hoping he has a bust-out game.
On the other side the Jets offensive line has had many issues. They've had six different starting combinations and they'll probably have to make a change at right tackle because rookie Chuma Edoga isn't going to play and they're going to go back to Brandon Shell and that may be an upgrade. Their line is starting to get a little bit of confidence, but the Cincinnati front is something a lot of players mentioned Wednesday. That caught their attention more than anything on the Bengals. The Jets have a healthy respect for the Cincinnati defense. I didn't hear much chatter about Cincinnati's offense. We'll see how much the Jets line has improved against this defensive front because the Bengals have a couple of quality guys there. Their three interior guys are all backups and I think they're better than the three guys they replaced. If the Jets can win the line of scrimmage I think they can have another big scoring day.
THE EDGE: The Jets are playing with a lot of confidence. Their defense is playing lights out against the run. Sam Darnold has played a couple of his best games of the year. They're the only team in the Super Bowl era to score 34 points three games in a row and I don't think they'll score 34 this week. I think they'll have some issues with the Cincinnati front, but I think they'll get Bell going a little bit and their defense will play another good game. And they won't take them lightly after getting burned a month ago by winless Miami. JETS, 21-13
On paper the Jets are obviously the better team and they're on a bit of a roll. They've got some confidence and I think that confidence is legitimate. They seem to kind of believe in what they're being told by the coaches and that's Gregg Williams on the defensive side and head coach Adam Gase on the offensive side. I think it's clicking for Darnold. He didn't play great in the previous two weeks, but he did a really nice job against a good Oakland team last Sunday and I think his performance is legitimate. I think the only way they don't continue this is if they somehow believe the Bengals are an easy out and don't take them seriously but I doubt that will be the case.
A couple of weeks ago the Dolphins were 0-7 and the Jets lost and it was one of their low moments in franchise history and you didn't know if they'd come out of it. I would suspect already facing a winless team and the Dolphins are playing hard, I would think that would stick in their mind as they're preparing for Cincinnati.
I think Andy Dalton is going to settle things down against Gregg Williams' defense, but you've seen he's prone to a lot of mistakes and I think under the pressure that Williams will certainly bring, there'll be some more mistakes.
THE EDGE: The Jets offense has found itself. They kind of know who they are. Darnold is a very confident quarterback right now. He'll occasionally take some chances, but I think he'll play well enough to score with regularity. JETS, 31-17.
The Jets are hot. Darnold has turned into that guy. I think that's going to be a problem. Before the year started, The Athletic asked the NFL people who we thought the break-out player in the league would be and I said Sam Darnold and I wasn't alone. I think he's the real deal, man. You could be getting a glimpse into the future of what the Bengals hope they look like in a year or two where they revamp the defense and you get a young quarterback that starts to come into his own and you start to see the light a little bit.
The Jets scored 34 points three weeks in a row and the Bengals haven't crossed 23 all year and not 17 since Oct. 6. That puts a lot on a defense that while it has played better, it is still problematic. How much of a lift do you get with Dalton being back? I don't know if it's enough to make up for how well the Jets are playing offensively.
They're going against one of the best run defenses in football with the Jets, so that's an issue because the way the Bengals have run the ball has been a big part of why there is optimism on offense. You're going to have to throw it and that could make it look a lot like it looked when Dalton was in there the first eight games. We know how that turns out. I don't like this game nearly as much as I liked last week's game for the Bengals.
THE EDGE: In honor of the 2009 Wild Card Game, I should have gone Jets, 24-14, but I already declared. We will not see anybody the caliber of Darrelle Revis and Chad Johnson. The only hope is if Joe Mixon can play like Ced Benson did that day. JETS, 27-17
I don't want Sam Darnold to see ghosts. I want Sam Darnold to see Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard. The Jets are third in the NFL in sacks allowed and fifth in quarterback hits allowed. Their offensive line has been playing better over the last few weeks but it sounds like the right tackle is going to be out this week. They've already lost since the beginning of the season their left guard, their center and their right guard, so former Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack has dealt with a hodge podge and as much respect as I have for Frank, the Bengals defensive line needs to dominate this week.
I don't think this is a week the Bengals are going to get 150 on the ground. But hopefully they can be respectable in the running game. They need to be able to identify and block who ever Gregg Williams sends after Andy. Where ever he has been as defensive coordinator, his non- defensive linemen always have a bunch of sacks and that's definitely the case this year. As a team they don't have a ton of sacks, but 15 guys have at least a half led by safety Jamal Adams with 6.5. The Bengals' record for a defensive back is four. So you can't let him wreck the game. You have to take care of the ball against these guys. That's always the case, but it's especially true against the Jets.
I think Andy gives them a huge lift, both in terms of his play and in terms of the emotion of having him. He'll be received very warmly. I said to him when he joined us on the Bengals Game Plan Show, when he got benched I thought he got more respect and admiration from the fan base than he did during the five years he led them to the playoffs. I think everybody gets a boost from having him back in there. I don't necessarily think he'll have a huge statistical game with the weapons that are missing and against a good Jets defense, but I think he'll take care of the ball better than Ryan Finley would have and I think they've got enough to get it done.
THE EDGE: I'm going with the same score from a few weeks ago when the Dolphins got their first win, also against the Jets. I think it's a somewhat similar situation. Ryan Fitzpatrick came back in to play quarterback for the Dolphins and gave them that veteran savvy. That's what Andy is going to do this week. BENGALS 26, JETS 18.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Dalton returns from Elba to a Bengals offense that has been stranded in the same sea of problems that sent him to exile a month ago. Without the speed of A.J. Green and John Ross, the Bengals just haven't been able to find consistent separation in the passing game and that's allowed defenses to do basically whatever they want, from stuffing the run game with ridiculous fronts to putting heat on an ever-changing offensive line. In the last three games, they've had just five passes of at least 20 yards.
In the three games before Dalton got benched, the Bengals didn't score more than 17 points. In the three games after, they didn't score more than 13. They have yet to score more than 23 this season and Sunday is another ferocious challenge against the NFL's No. 8 defense. The last time the Bengals went a season without scoring 24 points was the 2008 season Carson Palmer missed 12 games. Before that it was 1993.
Even more daunting is the Jets' suffocating run defense, ranked No. 1 after a month of allowing just 2.6 yards per carry.
That hits the Bengals where they live. During the last month running back Joe Mixon has been their most effective player in a rehabbed run game and it is going to have to be at its optimum to avoid those dangerous third downs Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams unleashes safety Jamal Adams on the blitz.
When Dalton was benched, he led the NFL in passes attempted in a formula that has never worked for him. He threw at least 36 passes in those eight games and his career record is 17-30-2 when he throws at least that many. That will be a difficult recipe to conquer Sunday.
But the Bengals also have an advantage in the trenches when they're flipped. Their defensive front has knocked down the run much better the last month at 4.2 while loosening up a pass rush that is now healthy and the Jets offensive line has struggled much of the year. It's coached by Frank Pollack, the Bengals offensive line coach last season during a stint he impressed everyone at PBS before he moved to the Jets when new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor revamped the staff.
Like the Bengals' Jim Turner, his successor in Cincinnati, Pollack has had to deal with injuries and shifting combinations and both seem to have steadied their units. But the Jets' run game is ranked lower than the Bengals (30 to Cincy's 28) and they're ranked lower than the Bengals in sacks per pass (31 to Cincy's 27).
Cincinnati's front has played the last two weeks like it was supposed to all year and they need to impose its will on this offensive line at home. Darnold is hot, but there's no question the Jets are going to try and establish running back Le'Veon Bell against a defense that has been prone to giving up big games against the rush.
Bell, yet to have a big day as a member of the Jets, no doubt recalls his 185-yard game for the Steelers at PBS five years ago. The Bengals drafted Mixon as their answer to Bell. On Sunday he gets a chance to outplay him. The winner most likely wins.