In a game with more storylines than binge viewing, the 8-1 Bengals look to the script that has made them one of the NFL's most feared teams when they meet one of the best the NFC has to offer in Sunday's premier game of the day (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) at 7-2 Arizona.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable projects a tight, one-score game where former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer survives the passion play with his signature long ball and 152 NFL starts of experience that nearly double the 73 authored by fellow MVP candidate Andy Dalton.
Veteran league observer Dan Pompei, NFL features reporter for Bleacher Report and a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, gives the nod to Arizona largely because of that experience and the home field.
Darren Urban, who has covered the Cardinals for 16 years, the last nine with the club's web site, AZCardinals.com, says it is the best team he's covered and one of the reasons is because they've proven with the 39 points in Seattle last Sunday night they can score on anybody anywhere.
Jim Owczarski, one of the Bengals beat men for The Cincinnati Enquirer, deals the Cards because of the home-field and he's not sure if this is the game the Bengals can get their running attack off the ground.
Coley Harvey, who covers the Bengals for ESPN.com, is the only member of the board picking the visitors. He's cites the storylines and the Bengals ability to use the motivation of past losses to their advantage earlier in the season.
Let's go around The Table:
Its irresistible force vs. immovable object with the Cardinals offense vs. the Bengals defense in a great matchup. The other side of the ball probably has a lot to do with who wins it. If the Bengals offense can shake out of the doldrums they were in the other night, I think they'll have a very good chance of winning this game if they put up some points against a defense that can be opportunistic and has made a lot of big plays this year both in the front and the back end.
Arizona can rush the passer and make plays on the ball. You don't want to be in third and longs and obvious passing situations. You want to make manageable third downs and in order to do that you've got to get the running game going a little bit.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is big. Two of the very, very best in the NFL. I wonder if Andy will go away from him this game a little and go to his other targets. It could set up for a nice game for tight end Tyler Eifert. The nice thing about the Bengals is they have so many weapons if you're dealing with a shut-down defender. You don't have to force the ball to Green anymore.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to Phoenix Arizona to take on the Cardinals 11/20/2015
The Cardinals receivers go against a good secondary, too, and if you flip the script, Arizona needs to run the ball, too, because the Bengals corners have been playing very well. The thing the Cardinals receivers have is they have a variety of skills and attack you in different ways with strength and quickness and speed and route running. You've got to be able to defend everything in order to contain that. They have a surprisingly good running game with Chris Johnson coming off the street and he's been rejuvenated. Some of that is because opposing defenses are mostly concerned with Carson and the passing game. It's a little bit like the Bengals, too. You have to be careful with that passing game and not jam up the box with safeties because you've got those great receivers and the tight end. It opens up opportunities for Johnson in Arizona and chances for Hill and Gio for the Bengals.
It's probably close to a coin flip between Palmer and Dalton because they're both playing so well. Carson is probably at a different point in his career in terms of his experience. It's the one thing that he's got. Andy doesn't have quite as much experience, so I guess I give it to Carson.
THE EDGE: CARDS, 23-20. They're playing at home and they're a really good team. I think Carson Palmer is playing the best football of his life and he's really inspired. I think it's the type of game that comes down to a play or two at the end.
Run-stuffer Domata Peko knows everyone has to get to the QB Sunday.
Winning in Seattle is such a huge deal for them on a lot of levels. They needed to get this lead in the division as they try to slay that dragon. They had a big lead last year and it got away from them, partly because of injuries and partly because Seattle got hot.
And how they did it. They got the big lead and then it fell apart for them. Then they got two touchdowns in the fourth quarter with Carson Palmer taking them down the field. They've got a lot of momentum. They haven't been home in a while. Not since a Monday night against the Ravens on Oct. 26. I think they're looking forward to playing at home and I think the best thing to happen to them after a win like last week is to play a really good team like the Bengals on national TV. There is no chance of a letdown because there is so much of a spotlight on this game.
The two losses the Cardinals have had they moved the ball. They had a ton of yards against the Steelers and the Rams, they just couldn't put the ball in the end zone. That's going to be interesting to me. I think this team can get yards against anybody because they've proven it, but can they finish against such a good scoring defense? And last week against Seattle they had 450 yards in that game and 37 of the 39 points came from the offense. I think they think if they do things right, they can move it on anybody and score on anybody and it helps being at home. But this is a big test and they know it. And what they did in Seattle gives them a lot of confidence.
When they're healthy I don't think the Cardinals look to attack anyone on defense. I think they put their weapons out there and however you try to defend them, they're going to go to the place with the fewest guys. If they have wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown all on the field and you decide to cover two of those guys, then one of those good receivers is one-on-one. The problem they have this week is Floyd (hamstring) is pretty gimpy and he's doubtful. John Brown has been dealing with a hamstring, too, so you wonder about that. But they feel like they have other receivers. They've got a running game for the first time I can remember since I've been covering them with running backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is going to do what Bruce does. He's going to dial it up and throw deep some times. Carson is having a great season doing that and they feel like they've got enough guys. It doesn't really matter as long as their protection holds up, they think they'll be able to get yards no matter what.
It's been mentioned a few times by the players and coaches. In a lot of ways these two teams mirror each other. They have good defenses. Maybe not defenses that are the 2000 Ravens, but pretty good defenses, and they have offenses with tons of weapons where you're not saying it's just this one guy. That's the most intriguing thing to me.
Carson hasn't had a bad game. He's had two bad series. They were at the Steelers 20 down five with two and a half minutes left and on first down for some reason he tried to throw it in the end zone and got picked off. If he just would have been patient I think they would have eventually scored. Against the Rams they were only down two and got to midfield and threw three bad passes in a row. If he had to do it over again, I think they take the field goal and they go on to win that game. He's playing at such an incredibly high level and he's comfortable and he's got enough other guys and he's at home, so I'd give him the edge over Dalton.
THE EDGE: CARDS, 27-20. If this game were in Cincinnati, you would look at it differently. But because it's at home I think that means a lot in a game that figures to be between two teams pretty fairly even. I think they're going to be able to score even though the Bengals have played really good defense and that's usually how it plays out with the Cardinals. They do give up some points. They're not going to shut anybody down. But they manage to get enough turnovers and make things happen. I do think the Bengals bounce back from the way they played Monday night, but I think the Cardinals have enough to beat them.
Tyler Eifert needs a bounce-back game at tight end.
On paper it should be another 'L' for the Bengals. On the road against a tough opponent coming off a big win that can give them some momentum and confidence. But you put these teams side-by-side and they're very similar. They've got quarterbacks that can throw the ball down field, they've got running backs that are capable, receivers that are capable. The defenses are more similar on the back end than they are on the front end.
The big differences are A). how motivated can the Bengals can be after Monday's loss, and B) will there be a hangover for the Cardinals coming off the big win in Seattle.
If the Bengals get those extra intangibles, they've got a chance. It's going to be an intangibles game, an emotional game in part because of the storyline with Carson. You also have the storyline of the Bengals coming back from Monday night. If the Bengals can tap into the motivational tricks they've used all year, they've got a good chance.
The big matchup everyone is watching is Peterson-Green. Peterson is going to be going with A.J. all over the field. It will be interesting to see if they end up double teaming him at any point if, say, safety Tyrann Mathieu comes over the top at some point to help. Not that Peterson needs it, but will they do that and how could it impact the Bengals offensively. If that's the case, Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Marvin Jones are options.
THE EDGE: BENGALS, 21-20. I'm probably going against my better judgement. My better judgement is to flip the score. I think it's going to come down to the intangibles. They haven't lost two games in a row in the regular season since 2013 and at the same time this is a team that has responded to coaches' motivational tactics. The Pittsburgh game where they were reminded all week about the two losses last year. You had the Browns game earlier this year where they were reminded about that Thursday game last year all that week. Clearly it showed up on the field. I think the Bengals win on the emotional edge.
A break-out game for running back Jeremy Hill Sunday night would boost the Bengals against the Cards' ball-hawking defense.
It kind of reminds me of the Pittsburgh game. I thought that was going to be high scoring. There is something about it. There'll be some touchdowns. The Arizona defense doesn't score points, so I think it will be a tweener game. A couple of scores each.
It is the Bengals secondary vs. Carson Palmer's deep ball. We talk about Bengals WLB Vontaze Burfict's return and this Cardinals running game is the best they've seen since Pittsburgh and Le'Veon Bell. As good as the quarterbacks have been and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said it talking to the Cincinnati media a lot of what they do is set up with single coverages downfield dictated by a strong running game.
It's big deal if the Cardinals get back left guard Mike Iupati. He's an All Pro. If he's out or limited that changes things for them.
I don't know if the Bengals can run the ball anymore. If they couldn't do it against Cleveland and they couldn't do it against Houston, two of the worst run defenses in the league . . . It didn't happen up to those two games and against the two teams where you thought the matchups really favored Cincinnati and Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to break out, it didn't happen.
Jeremy Hill will talk to us about his struggles and he'll say, 'When Andy Dalton and that pass game is going as well as it is, how can you take the ball out of their hands?' So some of it's the flow of the game and they're not getting in a rhythm. But even when Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants to run the ball, even in the I formations, which we've seen more in the last handful of weeks, you're not getting the chunk plays. Gio is more likely to get you an eight- to 12-yard run. They're trying and you see holes, but it's not consistent. Where did it go?
THE EDGE: CARDS, 28-24. I really went back and forth on this. If you're into gambling for entertainment purposes only, the line is essentially the home field line. The Bengals are a good team and I think they will play well. I don't think you'll see a prime-time stinker. I'll give Carolina its due. I can't call Arizona the best team in that conference, but they're very good. I think that home field gives them an edge and I don't know if it is a turnover late, or the Cardinals get that extra possession. I wouldn't be shocked if Cincinnati plays well and wins in a close game. But I think Arizona gets this one.
Darqueze Dennard could get his first NFL start in prime time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
After a career of saying it's just another game, the surprise of the week is that Carson Palmer is saying it is anything but. Now that he's got what he wanted, good players around him with a long ball and prolific offense close to his California home, you'd figure he'd be past his eight seasons in Cincinnati. If it is The Grudge Bowl for Palmer, it is the Best Bowl for the Bengals. They seem to be viewing it more like the Bengals' No. 1 scoring defense vs. the Cardinals' No. 1 total offense. This is their fifth straight run to the playoffs and the big reason they are 23-12 in November and December is because they have run the ball and stopped the run.
They seem to have only one Palmer in mind and it's the one they sacked four times when they beat him, 34-10, as a Raider three years ago
"Put him on his back," said nose tackle Domata Peko.
The key to that, he says, is stopping Cardinals running backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. It's a daunting challenge for a run defense that was allowing nearly five yards per bolt a few weeks ago and now faces Johnson's 4.4 average and Ellington's 7.6. Ellington and Adrian Peterson are the only two backs in the league with two 40-plus runs.
But with linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga re-united, the Bengals have their best shot at making Palmer one dimensional and there are enough Bengals that remember even the golden arm that led them to the division titles in 2005 and 2009 struggled when the run game struggled against a defense protecting the long ball.
The big element now, though, is that it looks like the Bengals won't have their best cornerback in Adam Jones (foot) against the Cardinals fleet band of receivers. With cornerback Darqueze Dennard possibly getting his first NFL start, the bump-and-run Bengals may have to give him help against a lethal deep ball. Palmer has flung it to eight different receivers with at least one catch of 38 yards.
But since a few early-season snafus in the secondary, the Bengals have been stingy on the deep ball. They haven't given up a ball over 26 yards to a wide receiver in the last month and they need an effort like that Sunday. They'll need to rally around Dennard and get big games out of backup cover guys like safety/nickel backer Shawn Williams. And it all gets back to the running game because Palmer has worked wonders with play-action deep throws this season.
The Bengals couldn't do much on the ground against the Texans' league's worst rush defense on Monday night and now they face the NFL's fourth best Sunday. No matter, they can't let Dalton pump it 38 times into a secondary that leads the NFL with 14 interceptions. There have been signs of running Jeremy Hill (3.2-yard average) starting to rustle, but they're looking for the big gash. Both Hill and Bernard had 80-plus TDs last season, but their longest rush this season is Bernard's 28 and Hill hasn't gone longer than 15. If the Cards can keep seven in the box and let DBs like Peterson and Mathieu roam, that's not a good recipe.
But let's look at Dalton after sub-par passing games the past two years. He's got a knack for the big rebound. Last year he followed up his career-worst 2.0 rating with a career-best 143.9. When the Browns held him to 53.6 the second time around last season, he finished the season with an 89.6 and an 83.7. A few weeks ago he followed up the 64.7 in Pittsburgh with a 139.8 against Cleveland. After a season-low 61 against Houston Monday night they need another big one and so does Dalton to keep in the NFL passing title race with Palmer and Tom Brady.
Naturally, in a game matching two of the league's best passers, the rushing numbers will tell you who wins. Both defenses are too good for a pure passing game to win this one.