With a hot start in the first half of the 2015 season, the Bengals are 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. The Bengals had their official bye week in Week 7 after soundly handing the Buffalo Bills a 34-21 loss. However, you could say the Bengals had a mini-bye this past week as they haven't played since Thursday's 31-10 smashing of the Cleveland Browns in Cincinnati. This week's game won't be played until Monday night, so the Bengals will have had 11 days of rest between the two games.
Although the Bengals haven't lost on Monday Night Football since Week 1 of the 2012 season, and beat the Browns last week, the primetime stigma is still going to follow them until they consistently perform under the bright lights, which they can prove in the next two weeks as they host the Texans on Monday and travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals in Week 11 on Sunday Night Football.
Last week: 31-10 win vs Cleveland Browns
Last week saw a completely dominant victory for the whole team, helping the Bengals to finish the first half of the season with the NFL's highest cumulative grade from Pro Football Focus (+53.2). A lot of that has to do with Andy Dalton receiving a positive grade once again (+1.8) for his efforts against the Browns that resulted in 234 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. On top of that, the Bengals saw great games from Andrew Whitworth (+4.6), Geno Atkins (+3.4), Clint Boling (+2.9), Tyler Eifert (+2.5), and Kevin Zeitler (+2.2). As a result, they are ranked #3 in PFF's weekly Power Rankings.
Coming it at #4 in PFF's top 10 NFL quarterbacks entering Week 10 is Andy Dalton. That's right, folks. Andy Dalton is a top five quarterback in the NFL and people need to stop trying to hide from it. While there has been plenty of talk about his career season so far, certain media outlets have still discredited him as a legitimately elite quarterback, preferring to discuss the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton.
No disrespect to Mr. Newton, but the numbers and our friends at Pro Football Focus agree that it's time for the country to start taking Dalton seriously. Interestingly, PFF actually ranks Ben Roethlisberger ahead of Dalton at #3, despite his injury plagued season and the fact that he just didn't play that well (one touchdown, three interceptions) when he and Dalton went head-to-head in Week 8. Dalton wasn't exactly Joe Montana that day either, but he still played better than Roethlisberger (one game-winning touchdown, two interceptions).
That said, it's not like the whole season has been the Andy Dalton show in Cincinnati. He's been amazing, but he's also had plenty of help from his teammates. Just last week, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Adam Jones, and Cedric Peerman all made PFF's midseason All-Pro team. Granted, they're all second teamers, but one team having that many players considered for All-Pro tells you that something special is brewing in Cincinnati.
Maybe it's not Dalton's talent or even his weapons that are leading to his fantastic season. Maybe it's his hair. You might take one look at that statement and think "Wow, you must be some special kind of stupid to think that his hair has anything to do with his talent." You'd be right, but don't tell that to the national media. They need whatever excuses that they can think of to avoid admitting they were wrong about him.
Last week: 20-6 win vs Tennessee Titans
Don't let the 14 point win against a division rival last week fool you, it has been a rough year for the 3-5 Houston Texans. As a result of generally poor form over the past nine weeks, PFF has them ranked at #21 in their power rankings. That's a pretty generous ranking though, given their average spot around most major media outlets is about 26th, with the lowest coming from Bleacher Report at 29. That's not terribly kind to a team that could realistically win their division, but to be fair they play in the AFC South which is currently led by the 4-5 Colts
It's pretty much been all about J.J. Watt this season in Houston, who has not only checked in ass PFF's second runner up to defensive player of the year, but has thoroughly impressed despite relatively little help from his teammates. PFF describes him as "still the top dog" on the Texans' front seven, despite the extra attention he gets. He checks in as the Texans' only PFF first team all-pro as a result of eight sacks, 18 QB hits, 46 total pressures, and five batted passes.
However, Watt isn't the only player who has had success with the Texans this season. Success has been hard to find this season, but DeAndre Hopkins has been a bright spot on an otherwise dull offense through eight games. While Watt checks in as the Texans' only PFF first team all-pro, Hopkins checks in as the Texans' only PFF second team all-pro. Why? He's their fifth highest graded receiver (+13.3). He's second in the NFL in total targets (111) and only has four dropped passes all season. His drop rate of 5.67 is the 10th lowest among qualified wide receivers.
They also have a pretty good run defense (+22.7) which sometimes distracts from their not-so-good pass defense (-5.4). Weirdly enough, their best offensive player not named DeAndre Hopkins sort of mirrors the opposite of that stat perfectly. Brandon Brooks ranks as the 3rd best guard in the NFL in pass protection (+8.2), but ranks 63rd in the NFL in run protection (-2.9).
Keys to the Game
Give the ball to Eifert
It's no secret that Tyler Eifert is having a breakout year. As previously mentioned, he joins A.J. Green, Cedric Peerman, and Adam Jones as PFF second team all-pro players for the Bengals for his scoring ability. He could have beaten out Rob Gronkowski if he was as good at blocking as he is at scoring, but the Bengals will take his league-leading nine touchdowns without gripe. He's on pace for 18 touchdowns this season, which would break Rob Gronkowski's 2011 record of touchdown receptions in a single season by a tight end (17).
It would make sense for the Bengals to ride their best offensive weapon as much as they can this week. The Texans' defense ranks 16th in the NFL so far against tight ends, giving up three touchdowns and 410 yards to the position over eight games. In virtually every category other than touchdowns, Eifert floats around the top eight among tight ends.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense have made it a season to remember for fans. A big part of their success has been their ability to distribute the ball to multiple explosive weapons. However, Eifert is proving to be the most explosive of these weapons and, by a wide margin. The Bengals' best chance to shred the Texans for a key win that the whole country will be watching.
By most accounts, the Bengals' offensive line has played really well this season. There have been some key issues such as Andre Smith and Russell Bodine's noted struggles, or the whole unit's problem with penalties. But, for all the ugly parts, the unit as a whole has allowed Dalton to be sacked only seven times, which ranks as the fourth best in the NFL behind only the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, and Washington Redskins. A lot of that has to do with Andrew Whitworth, who has allowed zero sacks, zero hits, and only four pressures on Andy Dalton, leading to a very good pass blocking efficiency (98.9).
The Texans aren't exactly a sack factory this year, recording 20 so far this season (11th in the NFL), but J.J. Watt is always a threat to wreak havoc in the backfield. Watt is tied with Carlos Dunlap for second most sacks in the NFL (8.5), and Jadeveon Clowney has been finally starting to come on for the Texans this season. Clowney carries a very good cumulative grade so far (+9.8) as a result of 13 stops in the run game but also two batted passes and 12 QB pressures. He's only recorded one sack so far, but he's making his presence known. The problem for the Texans is, he may not play on Monday with a lower back injury.
Field positioning is always a point of emphasis with the Bengals, and it has been ever since Adam Jones has been returning punts for the team. Even though he's failed to return a punt or kick back for a touchdown, he ranks second in the NFL in average yards per punt returned (14.0). He's also averaging 25.8 yards per kickoff returned and even returned one for 49 yards. All of this has earned him a spot as one of PFF's nine best Kick/Punt returners in the NFL.
Consistently having good field positioning to work with is huge for the Bengals' offense, and it has been a big part of the team's ability to create momentum for the offense to feed on. On the flip side, punt coverage has been a thorn in the side of the Texans all season. They rank as the second worst punt defense in the NFL as a result of low net average yards (38.3). They also punt really often - second most in the NFL (48) only behind the San Francisco 49ers (50).
The Texans also have an issue with turning the ball over. Although their turnover differential is relatively modest (-2), it looks dangerous compared to the Bengals (+4). Some of the Bengals' most important offensive drives this season, such as the key go-ahead drive against the Steelers in Week 8, have been set up by turnovers. These are the kind of momentum-injecting plays that really get the team going, and could be crucial to the end result. The Bengals have so many opportunities to control this game, but none should be more effective than winning the field positioning battle.