The AFC is hard to figure out at the moment. The Patriots and Chiefs are familiarly atop the conference once again, but the rest of the playoff seeds are pretty open. So much so, in fact, that the 3-4 Bengals are “in the hunt” as televised games show the playoff pictures.
Even though the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals are often afterthoughts, in terms of NFL popularity, but this Sunday’s matchup actually has some major midseason playoff implications. It’s been a roller coaster of a 2017 season for both clubs and we expect the same for this clash deep in the south.
Many Bengals fans who have hopped on the train in the Marvin Lewis era either forget or aren’t familiar with the old AFC Central. Before the Cleveland Browns’ 1999 re-inception into the league, the Bengals and Jaguars clashed bi-annually after Jacksonville was awarded a pro franchise in 1995.
Tom Coughlin led the upstart Jaguars to massive success throughout the mid and late-1990s, thanks to a glut of great players including Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Kevin Hardy and many others. The Bengals have a career 9-11 record against the Jags, but their divisional matchups were totally lopsided towards Jacksonville.
From 1995-2002, Cincinnati was just 5-10 against Coughlin’s Jaguars. Since, Lewis has turned the tables, going 4-1, while rattling off four consecutive wins.
Now, Coughlin is back with Jacksonville, but in the executive offices—not the sidelines. As the Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Coughlin has brought back a level of respectability back to his old team.
It has started with many of the aspects that won him two Super Bowl championships with the Giants. Rushing the passer, having a physical run game and forcing turnovers have all been part of the 2017 Jaguars’ M.O.
Jacksonville has the most sacks in the league with 33 through seven games, and is No. 1 against the pass and running the football. They have used recent high draft picks in both the back seven and at physical positions on offense and it shows.
Many Bengals fans were hesitant at the idea of the team drafting Leonard Fournette at No. 9 overall. Though they didn’t have the chance of doing so, the rookie back has come as advertised. He is averaging 99.3 yards and one touchdown per game on 4.6 yards per carry.
Though he’s missed a game, Fournette has been one of the major factors to their AFC South co-leading 4-3 record. There’s no doubt that he’s a key to this game for both the Jags and Bengals.
Meanwhile in Cincinnati, it’s hard to tell where the Bengals are at the moment. They needed a win against the Colts and grabbed it in dramatic fashion, winning 24-23. But, does the win show postseason-like DNA, or did they just barely squeak by a bad team on their home turf?
Though the Jaguars do a lot of good things on defense, stopping the run isn’t one of them. They’re last in the league in that category, while Cincinnati is 30th in the same vein.
Based on what we’ve seen this year and the ability to create something out of nothing, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard might be the ones offensive coordinator Bill Lazor calls upon this week. Still, given his previous history against Jacksonville and his running style Jeremy Hill might still be a guy Cincinnati uses this week.
In his explosive rookie year, Hill had 24 carries for 154 and two scores against the Jaguars. While Jacksonville’s defensive personnel has greatly changed since 2014, their No. 32 ranking against the run hasn’t and Hill could be an effective weapon this week.
Of course, a star like A.J. Green going up against A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey will be under the microscope. Green has found the end zone four times in the past five games, but his reception and yard totals have been in check the past two weeks.
So, when we’re talking about Fournette and top-10 picks, one has to look at the Bengals’ staff and wonder what they’re doing with wide receiver John Ross. There is talk that he’s behind the curve because of injuries he has been recovering from this summer and into the beginning of the year, but one has to wonder if Marvin Lewis is trying to make this a redshirt year for yet another promising rookie.
There have been rumblings about Ross not being in “game shape”, but one is inclined to think that Lewis and Lazor could at least come up with a half-dozen basic plays to get him involved as either a weapon or a decoy. But, we have “to practice the right way”, don’t we?
The Bengals’ pass rush shouldn’t be overlooked either, as they’ve racked up 22 on the year—including four last week. Though the Jaguars’ offensive line is much improved, the explosive nature of the Bengals’ line and the fickle play of Blake Bortles might end up telling the tale of the result.
This is an odd matchup this week. Both teams have strengths and weaknesses that counteract each other. Individually speaking, rookies Cam Robinson on Carl Lawson is one battle to watch, as is Fournette on Vontaze Burfict.
In a season full of them, this is a coin-flip game. Many believe that the Jaguars’ stout defense will frustrate the inconsistent Bengals’ offense, but there is a disparity of experience between these two teams in big games.
Maybe it’s believing in false narratives, or it’s the belief that the Bengals are starting to turn the corner, but Cincinnati probably takes another squeaker.
Bengals 20, Jaguars 17
AC — Thundercats are go!