They may end up wedging in the biggest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium history Saturday (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in an AFC Wild Card Game that pits the NFL's two hottest teams in Joe Burrow's emerging young Bengals blissfully unaware of history against Derek Carr's high-wire act of Raiders resolve and redemption.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable makes it first playoff appearance in six years with two members of the Cincinnati contingent that was there in the foggy rain that matched the surrealism of that Wild Card night against the Steelers. Paul Dehner, Jr., The Athletic's senior writer covering all things Bengals, and Richard Skinnner, Local 12's digital sports columnist, pick the Bengals by the exact same score humming the exact same Joey B. Goode tune.
So does Alex Marvez, the Titan of Talk on Sirius' NFL Radio. Marvez, a former Bengals beat reporter for The Dayton Daily News covering Jeff Blake's Bengals, picks Burrow's Bengals to beat a team that got here with the helping hands of Blake's nephew, Raiders wide receiver Zay Jones. But Marvez sees another Bengals-Raiders game decided by Burrow helper Joe Mixon.
Vincent Bonsignore, who covers the Raiders for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has had a front-row seat for one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. He's charted an interim coach making the playoffs for the first time in a season they've won a record six games on the last play. With the Raiders on a win-or-else four-game winning streak, all he knows is to expect a tight one to the end.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase get so much attention on this Bengals team, but I think this game comes down to Joe Mixon once again. As we know, 30 carries, 123 yards, one touchdown in week 11 when Cincinnati dominated the Raiders on the road and I have feeling he could have a very big game once again. The Raiders had a big loss with defensive tackle Darius Philon suffering a season-ending knee injury. The other tackle, Johnathan Hankins, is questionable, and I think the Raiders are so intent on pressuring the passer that they don't necessarily do a great job stopping the run. I think Joe Mixon is primed to help this team.
The one thing I worry about a bit about the Bengals on offense is Joe Burrow just has to stay patient like he was in week 11. The Bengals used the quick passing game more effectively at any point in the season and they didn't let Mad Maxx (Crosby) and Yannick Ngakoue affect Burrow. If we get in a situation where it's long down and distance, I worry a little bit about Joe, at this point in his career, maybe gambling and taking some unnecessary risks.
THE EDGE: I like this matchup for Cincinnati. I like the fact this is a team well rested without losing it edge, hopefully, under head coach Zac Taylor and the fact the Raiders are coming off such an emotionally and physically draining game and having to play on a short week on the road. Health has been one of the huge things for this Bengals team, so kudos to Paul Sparling and the training staff for keeping everyone standing up right. It's what separates the Bengals from some other teams in the postseason where you don't feel as good about their chances. BENGALS, 27-17
The Raiders are obviously bringing in a lot of momentum from the last four weeks. They faced four must-have wins. Any loss would have knocked them out. They've built a lot of resiliency, a lot of resolve over these last few weeks and it puts them in pretty good position. There's not going to be anything they aren't prepared for or haven't faced after the year they've been through. I would expect them to be mentally ready to go.
The one thing I wonder about is how much have the last four weeks taken out of them? Are they going to hit a wall at this point? But I feel like if they play good, efficient, clean football as they have been recently, they can beat anybody. If you go back to the first matchup this year, the Bengals won all the key battles. Time of possession. Penalties. Third-down conversions. The Raiders shot themselves in the foot a lot in that game. If they clean that up, they'll be in position to win.
THE EDGE: If it fits the mold of every game they've played recently, it's going to be close and may come down to kicker Daniel Carlson as it has many times this year. This has a chance to be a really good game that comes down to the wire. I'm not ready to call it. I like both teams.
I think inevitably the Bengals are different from the team that played that first game. They're so much more confident in what Burrow has become over the last month, since really that San Francisco fourth quarter. It has really just been special. His pocket presence and mobility back there has clearly clicked to that pre-injury level, if not better. I think that's why you're less frightened about dropping back more against the Raiders this time than maybe last time when you gave it to Mixon 30 times.
Not that there's anything wrong with keeping a significant percentage of that old game plan, but I think you shift more to Burrow is hot, he's going to be the one that gets you there. At some point you have to believe in the offensive line's ability to protect and your guy, who has been the best quarterback in football arguably not just the last month but maybe the whole year depending on who you talk to. To be the one to pull you there and get you that win. The hard thing is when you know their strength bumps right up against their offensive weakness. I think there's a lot resembling the first game with about 25 percent shifted into Burrow's hands.
It's hard to predict how these games are going to go, but I think they're the better team. When you remove everything some Bengals fans feel worried about, this team doesn't have any of that. They've checked off every box that has been put in front of them in terms of history. They're just the better team. I think they're going to get out early. I don't think it's going to be one of those slow start games. The team's toxic trait all year has been turnovers and the Raiders have almost defied logic over the last month in how much they've turned it over and still found ways to win. It's incredible how a team can be minus-nine for the season in turnovers and still be winning games. If they turn it over, the Bengals will win. They've done it all year and the numbers support that. They don't lose when they're even or better. They just really don't get beat that way if you give them possessions.
THE EDGE: Turnovers and Joe Burrow carry you through. At a certain point it's the same formula they've had in their best moments this year. Let the guy who is special be special. BENGALS, 27-17
I think this game plays out a lot like the one in Vegas. The one difference is that Raiders running back Josh Jacobs is healthier. He's certainly running the ball really well with 376 yards at five yards a pop during the four-game win streak. He's got to be a focal point of what the Bengals do defensively and this team has been pretty good against the run for the most part.
And, listen, Gus Bradley's defense doesn't give up big plays. It's designed as such, but I thought Joe Burrow managed the game beautifully the last time. Taking what the defense gave him, moving the chains. The running game finally got going in the second half. I think this game plays out almost exactly like that.
I don't think the Raiders have enough weapons on the outside. Tight end Darren Waller is going to be hard to cover because he's really good and the Bengals have trouble with elite tight ends for the most part. But if you shut down Josh Jacobs and as good as Derek Carr has been, and he's ranked fifth in the league in passing, I just don't think he goes out there and out gun-slings you.
THE EDGE: The defense will play really well. I think they'll be able to run the ball. Joe Burrow has just been great. I'm with the former head coach that told our friend Paul Daugherty that Burrow won't let them lose. It's a new era and he's showing the way pretty quickly. I think they end the drought and we can put that to bed once and for all and see where this team goes from there. BENGALS, 27-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hard to see the Bengals changing even a comma from the Nov. 21 game plan that allowed to win arguably their biggest game of the year, a 32-13 win on the cliff in Vegas when they arrived with the same 5-4 record after two straight losses.
But these aren't the Bengals of Thanksgiving. Not with the way Burrow has lit it up in his last four games with 11 touchdowns and no picks and nearly 1,500 yards. And the Raiders aren't even the Raiders of Dec. 12, when they turned it over five times in their last loss.
But there are plenty of signs pointing to more a Nov. 21 style of game. Remember, the Raiders had cut the thing to 16-13 with 11:42 left before Burrow went on a six-minute drive in a brilliantly game-managed effort that pulled out a win despite his career-low 148 yards.
It doesn't take Stat Masterson to figure it out. Only Next Gen Stats. The Bengals have allowed a franchise-high 51 sacks, the Raiders defense generates an NFL-high 33.6 quarterback pressure rate with an NFL-low 14.4 blitz rate and rampaging Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby with his league-leading pressures, is matched against backup right tackle Isaiah Prince in his seventh NFL start. If that doesn't sound like another career-high 30 carries from running back Joe Mixon, what does?
Plus, Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, already highly-regarded, looks like Tom Landry after what he did to the Bengals' deep pass game. Burrow's longest completion that day was 17 yards to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Since then, Burrow has finished off a season he has 15 touchdown passes of at least 30 yards, the fourth most of all time and the most in 23 years. In the last four games his yards per attempt is near 11. Next Gen has him with the most downfield yards per pass attempt since they've been keeping such stats, better even the 13-plus of Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson last year. Throw in that Chase has the most yards of any rookie receiver in the Super Bowl era and his 13 touchdowns are second only to Randy Moss in a rookie year and it makes Nov. 21 look like an anomaly.
Bradley doesn't let you go deep, but the Raiders have allowed ten passes of at least 40 yards and a 94.7 passer rating on deep balls.
So who knows how differently it is going to unfold than Nov. 21? One thing seems certain. Josh Jacobs, the Raiders' very good running back, was hurting the last time they played and carried only nine times for 37 yards. That's not going to happen Saturday. In two of the last three games, Jacobs has carried at least 26 times for 132 yards and you have to figure they'd like to use him to keep Burrow off the field.
The Bengals gave up some of their run defense to cover Patrick Mahomes' weapons against Kansas City two weeks ago, allowing 155 yards rushing while holding Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill to a combined 85 yards. How much will Jacobs let them have as they try to contend with Raiders All-World tight end Darren Waller?
Which may bring it back to the other back in this game wearing No. 28.