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Packers at Bengals Game Preview: Are we there yet?

Two 3-1 squads clash on Sunday, as the Bengals host Aaron Rodgers’ Packers. It’s a statement game for both teams, but for very different reasons.

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Since the 2015 Wild Card loss heard ‘round the world, there haven’t been a lot of monumental games for the Cincinnati Bengals. That turning point in the franchise’s history marked not only the beginning of the end of the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green/Vontaze Burfict empire, but also a descent into NFL irrelevancy for the following near-half-decade.

A new coach couldn’t immediately bring the spark back to The Queen City, but his youthful exuberance and intelligence being paired with one of the best college quarterbacks in recent memory?

Well, the opportunity to start erasing franchise stigmas is here and now.

Few times in the NFL does an inter-conference, Week 5 clash bring an opportunity to swing a u-turn on preconceived notions. This Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium may shine a green light for Burrow and the Bengals to change minds for a lot of folks on the outside looking in.

Even though the Bengals are 3-1 and seeming to finally head in the right direction under Zac Taylor, questions on the credibility of their wins and when their inevitable stumbles will occur are talking points from the national media. The pouncers-at-the-ready will point to a combined 2-10 record from the teams they have beaten, while chuckling about the high-profile failures of past regimes.

However, those who choose to look through a different (more local?) lens at Cincinnati’s exciting first quarter of the 2021 season will point to team attributes like “fortitude,” “next man up” and “pick your poison.” Each win has had different trademarks, be it giving up a big lead and hanging on to win in essentially five full quarters, a decisive two-touchdown win on the road against a hated divisional rival, or coming back from a similar deficit at home in the second half for a thrilling win.

Because of the former notes, almost every national media member is picking the Packers to beat the Bengals at PBS this Sunday, and the Packers are favored, per DraftKings Sportsbook. After a rough first week, Aaron Rodgers is once again playing at a high-level, posting a 100.8 rating with eight touchdown passes, while not throwing an interception (or the team having a loss) since that Week 1 debacle against the Saints.

There may be no better example of “winning shuts everyone up” than with Rodgers through the first month of the year. After pulling a page from the 2011 Carson Palmer manifesto, Rodgers decided he had had enough of the Packers’ perceived lack of commitment to getting him the pieces he desired to build a late-career dynasty.

After getting shellacked by New Orleans in the opener, everyone proclaimed that Rodgers had checked out and it would be a long year for the Pack. Fast-forward three weeks, and they’d essentially be a touchdown favorite over a team with the same record had this one been played at Lambeau Field instead of PBS.

The Bengals had their own hiccup and poor quarterback performance in Week 2 versus the Bears, wherein most feel that a winnable game went right through their grasp. Like Green Bay, Cincinnati has rebounded nicely since their reality check early in the season.

Now, at 1 p.m. ET, the two teams clash. And, they do so with their roster health in different statuses.

After missing many important players on Thursday night versus Jacksonville, Cincinnati has seemingly recovered nicely. Save for Joe Mixon, who suffered an ankle injury in the win over the Jaguars and is questionable, the Bengals look to get back secondary members Chidobe Awuzie and Jessie Bates III, as well as wide receiver Tee Higgins.

On the other side, the Packers are banged up at offensive line and in the secondary, creating favorable matchups for the Bengals, as the wide receivers and defensive line have been two of the stronger groups for Cincinnati this year.

For all of the wins Rodgers has collected in his Hall of Fame career, he’s had struggles against the Bengals, of all teams. He has a 1-2 record against Cincinnati that could very well be 0-3, if not for an overtime comeback win back in 2017.

If there’s one thing we know in the recent history between these teams, it’s to expect the unexpected. Back in 1992, Cincinnati held a 17-3 fourth quarter lead in Green Bay until some kid named Brett Favre came in and led a 21-point comeback in relief of starter, Don Majkowski.

Almost a decade-and-a-half later, Favre threw five picks to the upstart Bengals in Palmer’s breakout year. That was the game that had the famous PBS incident with a fan rushing the field and taking the football right out of Favre’s hand late in the contest.

“Plays” like this one from former Bengals tight end, Dan Coats, have become part-and-parcel of the series. This was Rodgers’ first face-off against the Bengals, and it was another wild one.

Then, four years later, Cincinnati grabbed an improbable win at home thanks to a Chris Berman-esque “rumblin’, stumblin’, fumblin’” play by Cincinnati’s defense:

Would it really surprise any of us if another iconic moment occurred again this Sunday?

By all appearances, points will be scored aplenty by both teams this week. Both quarterbacks are largely playing well and, as mentioned earlier, Cincinnati’s offensive unit appears to be nearly-all-systems-go.

That said, it’s not like the respective defensive units are slouches. Cincinnati had a tough night on Thursday trying to defend Trevor Lawrence & Co., but that was on a short week wherein they were banged up and played close to 80 plays against the Steelers the prior week.

Lou Anarumo’s unit is currently ninth in rushing yards allowed per game, third in allowance of total rushing yards (374) and are tied for eighth in quarterback sacks (11). They’ve also allowed just one pass of over 40 yards (tied for third-best with five other teams), while allowing opposing passers to have an 86.5 rating—good for fifth-best in the NFL.

The Packers’ defense is eighth-best in the league in total passing yards allowed (838) and seem to be hovering around the middle-of-the-pack (see what I did there?) in many other statistical categories. However, Jaire Alexander being out and fellow corner Kevin King coming back from concussion protocol isn’t helping things.

Cincinnati’s defensive line has been playing as one of the league’s best unit this week. They’ll need to harass Rodgers from every angle and take advantage of center Josh Meyer’s absence with guys like B.J. Hill, Larry Ogunjobi and even D.J. Reader, who have combined for five quarterback sacks already this season.

For the Bengals, this week provides an opportunity to change a national narrative about not only this current team’s trajectory, but also some of the ones that have surrounded the club since its inception. With Burrow’s ascension into both the league’s Comeback and Most Valuable Player of the Year awards, this would be one of the main jewels in those respective crowns.

We mentioned that a win against Ben Roethlisberger on his home field via an out-duel by Burrow would symbolize the passing of the AFC North power baton. It occurred a couple of weeks ago, as both teams have trended in opposite directions since that critical game. Getting this one against Green Bay would be another huge foundational stone for Taylor and Burrow’s Bengals and put them in the AFC playoff picture earlier than many thought.

For Rodgers and the Packers, a win would be just another notch in the belt during a season in which No. 12 is a man on a mission. Credit may or may not be given to Cincinnati for being a “decent team”, or however the talking heads would spin it, but a victory would undoubtedly be about Rodgers continuing to tell everyone to “R-E-L-A-X”.

I could see this one going either way and I think people outside of the Bengals’ sphere will be pleasantly surprised from Cincinnati’s showing in this one, regardless of the result. I’m just not sure the awaited “Bengals arrival” will be on time.

Not yet.

Packers 33, Bengals 27

AC — Winning makes believers of us all. - Paul Brown

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