We’re entering the part of the NFL season where we separate the men from the boys. Week 1 pretenders start to stumble toward the finish line, while other slow-starters and teams with churned-up rosters either hit their stride or shift their focus to April of 2021.
This is especially relevant given the landscape of the 2020 offseason.
In many ways, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals, who face off this Sunday in The Queen City, embody the latter category. However, some have seem some signs that point to immediate optimism.
Both had intriguing playoff runs in the past half-decade, both now have quarterbacks they believe they can build around and both head coaches seem to have the support of its ownership group, despite recent struggles.
Unfortunately, another parallel is that both franchises also have yet to win a Super Bowl.
After being one of the more successful NFL teams from 2005-2015, Cincinnati has officially pressed the reset button. Joe Burrow is now their third franchise quarterback since 2003 and after just three games, he looks every bit of the part that Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton played—and then some.
Five years ago, many believed that the Bengals were in for a deep playoff run. Dalton injured his thumb in mid-December and Cincinnati imploded on its home field in front of a national audience and have never been the same.
Two years later, Jacksonville made an improbable run all the way to the AFC Championship game on the heels of an aggressive defense and Leonard Fournette’s backfield talents. Since, they’ve dismantled their roster a couple of times in an effort to recreate that magic.
Yet, here they both are, set to clash on Sunday afternoon, a combined 1-4-1 through three games. Win and it’s a building block for the rest of the year, lose and it’s a question of which position to spend the 2021 top-10 pick upon next spring.
The Bengals are 0-2-1, but that record could easily be reversed in a 2-1-type of look. It isn’t so much the fault of Burrow though, as it is failings around him and we’re not sure how much stock to put into potential wins against the Chargers and the Eagles.
Regardless, these are the type of hurdles that teams in transition must traverse to get to where they want to go. And, as we know by know, the Bengals have tied an NFL record for consecutive non-wins with an 0-14-1 record over their past 15 one score differential games.
As we sit here not long before kickoff, the Jaguars-Bengals clash comes down to passing: both in the offensive slant of the term and defending it.
In terms of throwing the pigskin around, Burrow has been solid thus far—especially in the wake of immense pressure. Per Football Outsiders, he’s being sack on nearly 11 percent of his dropbacks, while his starting right tackle has allowed the most pressures (15) of any offensive lineman through three weeks, per Pro Football Focus.
Cincinnati is also solid against the pass on defense, allowing just three passing touchdowns in as many games, while netting the same amount of interceptions. It’s actually quite a feat, given the frequent absences of Geno Atkins, Mike Daniels, Trae Waynes and others.
This week, those three will be out of the lineup once again, but Logan Wilson and Mackensie Alexander also look to be out this week. It paves the way for a potential big game for Gardner Minshew.
Speaking of, the Man with the Mustache has taken the southeast by storm. After throwing 21 touchdowns and six interceptions last year and a respectable 6:3 ratio this year, he has the Jags faithful believing.
That’s what JP Acosta from SB Nation’s Big Cat Country’s site told us recently. Even though Jacksonville has been collecting picks in the form of veteran trades, the “Tank for Trevor (Lawrence)” 2021 campaign isn’t necessarily underway, as they may build around the former Washington Cougar.
Ironically, the rest of the 2020 Jaguars roster may be a look in the mirror for the 2021 Bengals. In that, we mean more turnover—even if it means stars being shown the door.
Many high-profile first-round picks by the Bengals have been letdowns this year, paving the way for potential replacements being had next spring. Names like Billy Price, John Ross and even A.J. Green have come under the microscope as guys who will not be retained—in some form or another—next year.
Green is the one that probably means the most to Bengals fans, for both sentimental and overall importance reasons. Unfortunately, the Comeback Player of the Year bid for No. 18 needs more gaudy performances, as 13 catches for 116 yards on 28 targets through three games is quite pedestrian.
Yet, with Jacksonville’s ailing pass defense, this could be one of those “get right” games for Green. He has missed considerable time both in the last few seasons and in this preseason, but some believe the statistical issues are a mere rapport/conditioning problem and not that of Father Time. If you’ve watched the Bengals this year, big play opportunities have been available.
Oh, and have you ever heard of James Robinson? He’s the running back taking over for Fournette and he’s been electric. He has 349 yards from scrimmage, three touchdowns and a 4.9 yards per carry average so far this year.
With the Bengals struggling against the run, Robinson should be in for a good day. Wilson being out after having a solid outing against Philadelphia definitely hurts.
Both teams will want to establish the run, for somewhat-different reasons. For Jacksonville, it’s undoubtedly because they watched the Week 2 film. Getting chunk yardage on early downs via the ground game will put the Jags in a position in which they want to reside.
If they’re able to utilize Robinson, Jacksonville can utilize play-action and bootlegs to stymie the Bengals. This was how Baker Mayfield embarrassed Cincinnati on national television a couple of weeks ago.
If Cincinnati can finally find some semblance of balance with Joe Mixon, it will not only begin to validate the contract they gave him this summer, but will pave the way to a formula for success. It should also open up the deep passes, of which Burrow is just 1-of-16 this year.
Still, this feels like a breakout game for Burrow and one wherein the Bengals get their first win of the season. It also seems like one that won’t be easily obtained and a contest filled with frustrating moments of points being given up.
Pickswise.com, a partner of ours as we preview the Bengals’ games on the 2020 schedule, has the Bengals covering Las Vegas’ three-point spread in their multiple simulations:
Cincy looked solid this past week, taking the Eagles to overtime and earning a tie on the road. Now they’re coming back home to play the weakest team they’ll have faced all year. The Bengals’ biggest issue this season has been protecting Joe Burrow, but fortunately that shouldn’t be a problem here. That’s because Jacksonville has had one of the league’s weakest pass-rushes so far, as they rank second to last in the NFL with only three total sacks. When Burrow has had time to throw he’s looked great, and he should have his best game yet here. Gardner Minshew and the Jags had a little magic early on, but that has clearly run out.
Was Cincinnati’s tie last week against the Eagles a sign of progression, or treading water? Week 4 gives us the true litmus test on that, as we’ll look to see how this young team responds with some of its best defensive players out of the lineup.
The vacancies on that side of the ball will be obvious, but it’ll be Burrow that outshines the ‘stache in this one. If we’re going with the Bengals, we know it’s going to need to be at least a nine point differential, given the aforementioned 0-14-1 streak.
Jaguars 26, Bengals 35
AC — Baby steps.