Thanksgiving weekend kicks off the home stretch of the NFL regular season. The playoffs are in sight for the Cincinnati Bengals, but five clubs with winning records stand in their way of playing beyond Week 18. The Tennessee Titans and their retro brand of football are the first on the docket.
As former AFC Central rivals, Cincinnati and Tennessee’s recent history largely favors the orange and black. The Bengals have won four of the last five meetings, including their first-ever road playoff victory last season in Nashville. There will be emotions from that game factoring into this one, without a doubt.
Here are the matchups that will greatly determine the result.
Alex Cappa & Ted Karras vs. Jeffery Simmons
The last plays of the Super Bowl are the most damning examples, but Simmons and Co. sacking Joe Burrow nine times during Cincinnati’s Divisional Round victory was a clear message to the front office. They quickly acted in free agency to give Burrow some help inside, and Cappa and Karras have proven well worthy of the investment. Both are amongst Pro Football Focus’ top 25 pass blockers among starting guards and centers.
When it comes to pass rushers, Simmons is well inside the top 25. The eye test alone will tell you as much. Simmons will be active for Sunday, but an ankle injury that forced him to miss Week 10 kept him limited this week during practice. Cincinnati’s duo at right guard and center must take advantage playing against Simmons when he isn’t at 100%.
Samaje Perine vs. David Long Jr.
Ja’Marr Chase’s hip injury, the one that will cause him to miss a fourth straight game, has not kept the Bengals from dropping back to pass. This will be put to the test against a fierce Titans pass rush while starting running back Joe Mixon watches from the concussion protocol. Perine has proven to be capable behind the Bengals’ offensive line, but the Titans are no joke against the run. In fact, they’re first in run defense DVOA, success rate allowed per rush, and second in EPA allowed per rush.
Simmons and the defensive line are obviously factors in this, but Long has become a rising star at linebacker. Drafted in the same 2019 class with Simmons, Long sports PFF’s second-highest run defense grade among starting backers, and has 17 pressures to boot on just 42 pass rushing snaps. Perine’s afternoon will be avoiding Long when he has the ball, and finding him at all costs in pass protection.
Tyler Boyd vs. Joshua Kalu
It took a while for Burrow to connect with his trusty slot last week in Pittsburgh as Boyd hauled in just two of his six targets. The last time that at least four incompletions featured Boyd as the target, Burrow was still at LSU. You can bet on these two trying to get things right in a hurry.
The slot defender spot for Tennessee has been passed around between multiple players, and Kalu is the latest to man the position. The fifth-year safety has been playing as a half-field safety and in the slot fairly equally since Amani Hooker’s injury, but he should see more time closer to the line of scrimmage with Hooker returning.
DJ Reader vs. Derrick Henry
As a human being, Henry doesn’t make sense. He physically shouldn’t be as fast as he is—in pads mind you—while being the size of a transformer. It’s only right that his kryptonite is an equally ginormous entity.
Reader’s case for being the NFL’s best nose tackle can be based around his performances against Henry alone. Their history against each other mainly involves the former Heisman-winning running back not finding many holes to burst through up the middle. Reader was arguably the best player on the field when Henry’s Titans had the ball in the Divisional Round, finishing with four stops and six total tackles. Henry simply couldn’t find much success when his team needed it the most.
This is almost the inverse of last time. Instead of Henry coming back from injury with a metal plate in his foot, it’s Reader still finding his footing off a torn MCL with a knee brace. Will that give Henry the edge he needs? Reader will need to play closer to 100% to achieve his usual production.