Let's just get the most obvious out of the way. Yes, I know AJ McCarron's level of play will probably be the most pertinent aspect to whether the Bengals can earn a road victory against their Super Bowl nemesis. You know that, I know that, my great grandmother knows that, and she's dead! I rarely picked Andy Dalton in this column, and I won't change the rules for McCarron. Most NFL teams go as their quarterback goes, and that would make for some pretty boring reading.
You may have chuckled a bit to yourself when you read the phrase "keep Blaine Gabbert in check" above. I was incredulous that such a combination of words could come from my fingertips in 2015. Alas, that is the case. Gabbert is still not a very good quarterback. However, he has been a marked improvement from Colin Kaepernick. Gabbert has completed 63.2 percent of his passes on the year for 1,157 yards, six touchdown, and three interceptions through five games. While he isn't setting the world on fire, those aren't HORRIBLE numbers. However, the 49ers have the lowest scoring offense in the league by a wide margin. They have managed to put up 188 points this years. For comparison, the 31st-ranked Cowboys have put up 230. The only thing their offense does well is not turn the ball over. But, when you're scoring 13.4 points per game, that's not that impressive.
The 49ers' defense is undoubtedly the team's strength. Despite the precarious situations that the offense repeatedly puts them in, the defense ranks 19th in points allowed, which is perfectly respectable, all things considered. However, they have allowed the third most yards in the NFL and only have 11 takeaways on the year. Their 22 sacks is good for 28th in the league. The combination of a meager pass rush and little ability to force turnovers should help McCarron in his NFL debut.
1.) Giovani Bernard
I think the days of me hoping for a Jeremy Hill breakout are over. He hasn't been horrible, but he hasn't lived up to the expectations he built for the fan base in 2014. On the bright side, Hill's 2014 campaign surely gave Gio Bernard a little extra motivation. Whatever the case, Bernard has clearly been the Bengals' best back this year. Everyone already knew he was talented pass catcher, but he has been the decidedly better runner this year as well. His running isn't the reason he is on this list though. I suspect Hue Jackson will still attempt to establish Hill early on. But when the Bengals need to throw the ball, Bernard will be able to make McCarron's life much easier. When everything breaks down or when McCarron can't make a read in time, Bernard will be there to bail him out and make something out of nothing.
2.) Vontaze Burfict
There isn't really one facet of the 49ers offense that needs to be "shut down." They don't run or throw the ball very well. Therefore, I have to go with Burfict as a key player because he can affect every play, whether it is a pass or run. The 49ers likely do not want Blaine Gabbert to throw the ball 50 times on Sunday. The Bengals absolutely want him to have to throw the ball that much. If Burfict can keep a lid on Shaun Draughn who has also been a frequent target in the passing game, Gabbert will have to begin looking downfield, which should play into the Bengals' hands both figuratively and literally.
3.) Mohamed Sanu
Sanu's ability to make tough catches over the middle as well as his versatility on gadget plays could come in handy over the next few games. Sanu's ability to do damage after the catch can also help the Bengals be successful despite what I expect to be a pretty sharp dropoff from Dalton to McCarron. The chances of Sanu having a big effect on the outcome of this game have increased without Dalton. Don't be surprised to see him catching, running, and even throwing the ball.
4.) Tyler Kroft
Quality tight ends are always a quarterback's best friend. We have seen that this year with Tyler Eifert. Unfortunately, Eifert will be unavailable this week, sitting out with a concussion, which will put the onus on his replacement, Tyler number two. Kroft has played pretty well in his limited opportunities this year. I don't expect him to have a gaudy stat line, but if he can be successful in the blocking game and get McCarron out of a couple jams, we can consider that a good day that could ultimately help lead the Bengals to victory.
5.) A.J. Green
When all else fails, rely on your studs. Green had 132 yards last week despite catching passes from a new quarterback whom he probably didn't have much of a rapport with. That quarterback is also probably pretty eager to throw passes to the best receiver he has ever had the chance to play with.