I hate the term "Must Win Game," but this is an important game. After an embarrassing loss on national television, the Bengals face 3 straight 2013 playoff teams (Carolina, @Indy, Baltimore), before getting 2 easier teams (Jacksonville, Cleveland) and then ending with a ruthless last 7 games that feature 5 games on the road and home games against the Steelers and Broncos. Let's hope the Bengals bounce back like the Patriots did.
So, after shoveling lots of crow for my predictions against the Patriots, I hope to redeem myself this week - here is what to look for against the Panthers this Sunday...
When the Panthers Run the Ball:
Panthers Running Attack: 30th - 74.8 YPG
Bengals Run Defense: 27th - 140.0 YPG
The Panthers backfield is as decimated as the Bengals receiving corps. The Panthers top back (DeAngelo Williams) only has 106 yards but will be out again on Sunday. Their second string back (Jonathan Stewart) is questionable; their 3rd string back (Tolbert) is on the IR/DFR list; and the next guy in line, rookie Darrin Reaves, is questionable as well. If Stewart or Reaves can't go, the Panthers will go with Chris Ogbannaya as their starter.
Either way, Ogbonnaya may see a bulk of the touches. This would be a welcomed sight for a Bengals defense that was torched in week 5 by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen - not exactly Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. With the return of Vontaze Burfict and a return to friendly confines of the Jungle, I expect to see the Bengals run defense bounce back big time and shut down the Panthers poor running attack and force Newton to beat them through the air.
When the Panthers Throw the Ball:
Panthers Passing Attack: 12th - 251.6 YPG
Bengals Pass Defense: 19th - 250.8 YPG
I have never been impressed with Newton as a quarterback and after losing his entire wide receiving crew from 2013 (literally), he is at a disadvantage in 2014. Kelvin Benjamin has been a great addition (24 receptions, 367 yards, 3 TDs) and much more impactful than I thought he would be, and Greg Olsen is having an incredible year (27 receptions, 326 yards, 4 TDs) - and we know the problems the Bengals have covering TEs (Wright and Gronk combined for 11 catches, 185 yards and 2 TDs).
I think Benjamin and Olsen can present some problems for the Bengals, however, given the Panthers' poor offensive line - PFF has them ranked 29th (http://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2014/10/08/offensive-line-rankings-2/), Newton's decreased mobility (ribs and ankle), the casualties in the backfield and the return of Burfict, I like the Bengals in this matchup as well.
Oh yeah, and even without Burfict for most of the year, the Bengals are 1st in the NFL in terms of opposing QB Rating (67.6) and completion percentage (56.6%).
When the Bengals Run the Ball:
Bengals Running Attack: 18th -111.0 YPG
Panthers Run Defense: 23rd -129.6 YPG
The Bengals finally got Giovani Bernard going last week on the ground (4.8 YPC), only to find themselves so far behind so quickly that he and Hill managed just 15 carries. Don't expect that to be the case on Sunday. In fact, with Eifert, Green and Jones all out, I expect to see Bernard and Hill on the field together for most of the game.
Look for Hill to be the main back on Sunday and Bernard being used more in the passing game to account for the losses at WR/TE. Given the Panthers weak running defense, combined with how thin the Bengals are at WR, I expect 30-40 carries on Sunday between Hill and Bernard.
With the injuries and suspensions the Panthers have along their D-Line, the Bengals should find plenty of running room. Despite 3 of the Panthers 5 opponents averaging 4.3 YPA or less, the Panthers rank dead last (32nd), giving up a staggering 5.4 YPA and have particularly struggled against other physical AFC North teams (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) - both losses.
When the Bengals Throw the Ball:
Bengals Passing Attack: 11th - 257.0 YPG
Panthers Pass Defense: 15th - 238.8 YPG
If the Bengals were healthy - hell, if they just had Green - this would be a big advantage to the Bengals. Despite an average ranking (15th), the Panthers were torched the last 2 weeks by the talented Bears receivers and the not as talented Ravens receivers to the tune of 308 YPG. In 5 games, the Panthers have surrendered 10 touchdowns through the air and allowed opposing QBs to complete passes at a 67.2% clip (26th) while compiling a 94.8 Rating (19th).
However, the fact of the matter is the Bengals won't have Green...or Eifert...or Jones, and therefore will have Sanu as their #1, Tate or Sanzenbacher as the #2 and Ben Coates, Jr...er Jermaine Gresham at tight end. The Bengals will likely use Bernard a lot in the passing game and they will need him. The Bengals could really use the Jermaine Gresham they thought they were drafting in the first round of 2010.
Kickoff Returns: Panthers -22nd (21.0 avg); Bengals - 23rd (20.9 avg)
Punt Returns: Panthers - 6th (12.8 avg); Bengals - 1st (20.7 avg)
Kickers: Graham Gano - 9/10 (90.0%; t-11th) Long 53
Mike Nugent - 8/13 (1 blocked, 4 misses; 61.5%, 31st) Long 49
Punters: Panthers - Net 40.9 - 18th; Bengals - Net 41.4 - 16th; Punts inside the 20: Panthers t-16th (7); Bengals t-10th (8).
Kick Coverage: Panthers - 27th (26.0 avg); Bengals 28th (27.2 avg)
Punt Coverage: Panthers - 30th (14.4 avg); Bengals - 2nd (3.1 avg)
The Bengals have an advantage in the punt return game with Adam Jones and an advantage in the punt coverage. However, they have Brandon "15 yard line" Tate returning kicks and 61.5% Mike Nugent attempting field goals. Theretofore, advantage Panthers.
Normally, a coach with 11 years with one team, a winning record and 5 playoffs appearances under his belt would have the advantage over a coach in just his fourth year with 1 winning season under his belt, but not Lewis. Ron Rivera has improved his team each year and went 12-4 in 2013 with a team I thought would win 6-7 games at best.
This is a testament to his coaching ability. Lewis has rarely overachieved with a team and struggles in big/important games. Sundays game would constitute important and I don't see either coach having an advantage.
Key to the Game:
Shutting down the run game. If the Bengals can shut down the run game and make the Panthers one-dimensional and force Newton to throw, they should have a huge advantage. The good news for the Bengals is that shutting down the depleted Panthers backfield should not be difficult
In my heart of hearts, I don't think this is a very good Panthers team and I think the Bengals will come out with the fire they lacked in New England and pummel the Panthers. However, the Bengals receiving corps is decimated and after Sunday night, my confidence is a bit shaken in Marvin Lewis and this team. I think the Bengals will win big, but I don't have the stones to pick it this week.
Bengals 24, Panthers 20