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Raiders at Bengals game preview: Just tank, baby

This matchup would have been awesome back in 1990.

Cincinnati Bengals v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The dog days of December are upon us.

In a stark contrast to the glory years of 2011-2015, Bengals fans are once again becoming re-accustomed to the team sitting at home with the arrival of a new calendar year. Reasons (excuses?) abound as everyone is staring the third straight non-winning season in the face.

Cincinnati’s future beyond the next three weeks is cloudy. Marvin Lewis is technically under contract for another year if the team chooses to bring him back, while their “franchise quarterback” has seen his season cut short with a familiar injury for the second time in four years.

The Bengals are in an abysmal 1-7 stretch since starting the season 4-1, and “Do your job” just isn’t cutting it. Throw in the All-Star receiver having a season-ending injury twice in three seasons to the whole mess and the haters are coming out of the woodwork.

But, wait...what’s that?

Believe it or not, Cincinnati still has a very faint playoff pulse in Week 15. They need to win out and receive immense help in order to sneak into the race with what would be a blasé 8-8 record, but there’s a very narrow postseason path, nonetheless.

Hey—half of a percent of a chance is still “alive”, right?

Before they look to avenge themselves in rematches against Cleveland and Pittsburgh to push away the mortician, the Bengals host the reeling Raiders on Sunday. It’s a blast from the past of sorts, as 16-year head coach Marvin Lewis hosts Jon Gruden in the first year of his Oakland reunion at Paul Brown Stadium.

Cincinnati has had recent success against Oakland, going 3-1 in the last four matchups. The last two victories have been particularly lopsided, with the point differential favoring the Bengals to the tune of plus-44.

However, because of a lethal combination of injuries and underachievement, this game will be a veritable match of “Guess Who?”. Gruden traded away two of his best players this season in Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, while A.J. Green, Andy Dalton and Vontaze Burfict will all be sidelined with various injuries.

Most nationally-recognized talking heads would readily point to Gruden’s Raiders as the bigger overall disappointment, but the Bengals shouldn’t be far behind in the category. Cincinnati went from massive spring underdogs, to en vogue picks in the early fall, to the eventual and predictable laughing stock we’ve seen since mid-October.

The parallels don’t stop at the old school coaches and lack of recent success, though. The Raiders and Bengals hold the dubious distinction of being two of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NFL. Between the two teams, it’s been 44 combined years since either have won a playoff game (28 for Cincinnati, 16 for Oakland/Los Angeles).

Oakland has also become “Buffalo West” in their gathering of former Bengals coaches and players. Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall, Mike Nugent and Brandon LaFell (all on Injured Reserve) comprised a chunk of the roster, while Paul Guenther is their defensive coordinator.

And, in making the Cincinnati/Oakland/Buffalo love triangle complete, AJ McCarron was dealt from the Bills to the Raiders during the preseason.

They’re also franchises being known for having meddlesome owners who are extremely nepotistic, hard-headed and can’t seem to get out of their own way. It’s not a coincidence that they haven’t had any level of recent success. (Side note: does anyone ever think about how Carson Palmer forced his way out of one dysfunctional franchise, only to be tossed around to two others?)

In the summer of 2017, Derek Carr signed a deal that gave him the richest contract in NFL history at the time. Since that ink dried, Carr has thrown 40 touchdowns along with 21 interceptions, and has compiled a 9-19 record. Because of the sizable contract and his slight regression since his outstanding 2016 campaign, some are wondering if he’s “Gruden’s guy” in the long-term.

Meanwhile, Dalton’s future might be a little cloudy in 2019 as well. Most signs from the uber-conservative Bengals franchise point to keeping him, but with the aforementioned injuries, the losing seasons, a possible head coaching change and a team-friendly “out” in the form of zero dead money in 2019 and 2020, No. 14’s days could be numbered in The Queen City.

Even with Cincinnati’s very slim playoff chances being alive (notice how nobody in the building is talking about that, by the way?), this game will for sure be about jockeying for draft position come April. Both of these teams are projected to pick in the top-10, based on how things have gone and where they are headed, so this game holds importance to both squads in a non-traditional sense.

We could spend an inordinate amount of time talking about matchups, the X’s and O’s of this Sunday, and the like. However, much like the teams themselves, we’re looking beyond those facets.

Both teams are also looking ahead to see what they have on the roster for the future, as struggling football teams do towards the end of a lost season. For Cincinnati, this will take the stubborn Lewis to take a break from being a roster curmudgeon and allow some promising guys to get more time.

John Ross is looking like Cris Carter in the early days of his career, while the team is also trying to find out if Jeff Driskel has long-term viability as an NFL backup quarterback. Cincinnati also knows what they have in Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd and other young standouts.

But, there are the cases of guys like Josh Malone, Cody Core and Malik Jefferson. What about Christian Westerman? He played very well last week, but might be plopped back on the bench with Cordy Glenn getting back to limited practice work this week.

For the Raiders, they definitely have their eyes on the draft, but also need to see if there’s anyone they already have under contract who can fill the shoes of Cooper and/or Mack. At wide receiver, no player has has eclipsed more than 500 yards, while defensive tackle Maurice Hurst leads the team with four sacks.

For reference, Mack has 10 sacks and six forced fumbles for the Bears, while Cooper has 642 yards and six touchdowns in six games with the Cowboys.

This Sunday will come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes (AKA who sucks less), as well as in which young players will step up with a potential 2019 job on the line. It’s more “let’s get this over with” than it is “let’s get it on!”.

Raiders 16, Bengals 20

AC — Are we there, yet?