In the unlikely event the Denver Broncos lose or even tie with the San Diego Chargers this week, Cincinnati pulls ahead in the race for the No. 2 seed with a win over Baltimore and gets that much-needed first-round bye for the playoffs. One of the players who could likely use a little more time off may end up playing this week and helping the team try to earn that bye.
No, Andy Dalton is not returning this week, though a bye may ensure he is the starting quarterback for the team's first playoff game. Instead, tight end Tyler Eifert is poised to return on Sunday after missing the past two games with a concussion.
After practicing Wednesday, the Bengals announced Eifert had been cleared by the NFL's concussion protocol, which he had been in since initially taking a big hit from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell in Week 14. The hit came in the first quarter of the Bengals' 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh, and it has kept Eifert in the protocol until being cleared Wednesday.
"It’s good to be back out there running around and feeling 100 percent," Eifert said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It feels good."
Not only is he cleared to play, but Eifert is adamant he's playing Sunday against the Ravens. "I’m feeling good," Eifert said. "I’m cleared and I’m ready to play."
The return of Eifert would be a welcome addition to an offense that's scoring just 20.3 points per game since Week 14. That's a big drop-off from the 27 points Cincy averaged over the first 11 games while Eifert hauled in an NFL-high 12 touchdowns and Andy Dalton was the man throwing the passes.
Eifert also missed the Week 13 shellacking of the Cleveland Browns due to a stinger before returning only to suffer a concussion the following game against Pittsburgh. It's been tough watching his team go 1-2 since he went down after they opened the year with a 10-2 start.
"It wasn't fun at all," Eifert said. "It hasn't been fun the last couple weeks, especially out there in Denver with everything that was on the line and the atmosphere, it was pretty cool out there. It was tough not playing, but I'm good to go now so that's all that matters."
Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson also told ESPN's Coley Harvey that this Sunday will be "All hands on deck. We've got to win the game." It sounds like the Bengals will approach Sunday as if it's any other week of the NFL season, and that everyone who can play will.
Eifert's return this week may end up being felt more in terms of how it changes what Baltimore does defensively rather than anything he'll do on a stats sheet. Back in Week 4 when Cincinnati won a shootout in Baltimore, Eifert was limited to zero catches on three targets, though he did have a controversial touchdown overturned after it was ruled he lost control of the ball while stretching it across the goal line.
His lack of production against the Ravens wasn't a fluke though. Baltimore's secondary has been suspect at times, but they've been excellent at defending tight ends. Coming into Week 17, the Ravens are tied for the second-fewest touchdown grabs allowed (2) and the fifth-fewest catches (65) and receiving yards (691) by tight ends in 2015, per FFToday.
Don't be surprised if Eifert plays Sunday but doesn't do much in the box score; regardless, his mere presence will affect how Baltimore's defense tries to stop Cincinnati's offense. In fact, Eifert's presence likely played a part in A.J. Green going off for 227 yards and two scores on 10 grabs in the Bengals and Ravens Week 3 meeting. Pretty much every Bengals pass-catcher other than Eifert had a big game that day, so hopefully it will be another day with big numbers for the Bengals' receivers on Sunday in the regular season finale.