In the NFL, rivalries are traditionally born out of being divisional rivals and the heated bi-annual matchups that ensue. Some of the more heated head-to-head contests of this variety are regularly seen in the AFC North.
Other times, it’s superstar quarterbacks in marquee inner-conference clashes that breed contention. Such was the case with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and we are seeing a new iteration of that in Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals against Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs.
Every once in a while, though, teams have intersecting paths in a lot of ways, even if the on-field matchups don’t occur all that regularly. In the past, we talked about the wonkiness of the Bengals and Seahawks, which now includes the low-scoring thriller a couple of weeks ago.
But you can’t have an extensive historical talk about either the Bengals or the San Francisco 49ers without either team entering the chat.
In the years surrounding the inception of the Bengals franchise, a young go-getter of an assistant coach brought an innovative approach to a team headed up by one of the most forward-thinking football minds ever seen in the NFL in Paul Brown. Bill Walsh was cutting his teeth in helping create a highly efficient offense with a potent passing attack in the “three yards and a cloud of dust” era of football.
Walsh was instrumental in some of the early Bengals quarterbacks’ developments and was considered to be one of the up-and-coming head coaches in the league. When Brown decided to step back from coaching and take a more macro approach to the young Bengals franchise, he had a tough decision to make: pass the reins off to a trusted, veteran commodity in Bill “Tiger” Johnson, or go with the Wild Card in the affable, brilliant, but unknown one in Walsh.
True to Bengals fashion, they went with “the devil they know” in Johnson. Feeling disrespected, Walsh eventually landed in San Francisco and built one of the league’s greatest dynasties.
That behemoth of the 1980s had pillars built at the Bengals’ expense. Though they were two of the most thrilling and close-fought Super Bowl games in the history of the sport, Walsh beat his former team and former boss twice, with another coming against his good friend and Cincinnati coaching comrade in Sam Wyche. Cincinnati hasn’t fared well against the post-Walsh Niners, either.
As most great teams do, San Francisco was able to seamlessly parlay one iconic quarterback’s career end into the beginning of another and create a monster of a team spanning two decades.
But Walsh and the two Super Bowls aren’t the only areas in which these two teams’ fates have intertwined. When you look back to Marvin Lewis’ 2011 rebuild of the Bengals and Jim Harbaugh’s tenure around the same time, these two teams exchanged players left and right.
Justin Smith, Nate Clements, Ahmad Brooks, Dan Skuta, Manny Lawson, and others flip-flopped on these teams. Heck, even Takeo Spikes and Terrell Owens played for each team after stints with others.
And remember the Donte Whitner free agency saga?
Even with these player exchanges, San Francisco has gotten the better of Cincinnati more often than not. The 49ers have won the last two, and despite two consecutive losses, they remain one of the best teams in the league right now.
They face an interesting test this week, though. The Bengals have somewhat underachieved at 3-3, but they’re coming off of a bye in which they greatly needed to get guys healthy for this back-end stretch of games.
Burrow, Tee Higgins, Orlando Brown, Jr., Charlie Jones, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and others all used the week off to remedy varying ailments. It’s about the healthiest they’ve been since before Burrow’s calf injury in early summer, and they’re undoubtedly feeling a little bit of pressure to make a strong push for the playoffs amid a tough stretch of games.
What to make of the Niners right now, though? They’re stacked but have lost two straight and are facing health issues with three very important offensive players. Quarterback Brock Purdy is playing after suffering a concussion vs. the Vikings on Monday. Stud left tackle Trent Williams is questionable after not practicing at all this week, while Swiss Army Knife weapon Deebo Samuel is out.
With Purdy not coincidentally struggling in the losses, how will he fare without some of his best players? Regardless, he still has his explosive ace-in-the-hole, Christian McCaffrey, and the Bengals’ defense has to keep his versatility in check.
Conversely, the big question out of Cincinnati is how their offense will look out of the break. They’ve been wildly inconsistent, putting up anywhere from just three to 34 points scored this year, and they absolutely have to find some semblance of balance and big-play capability that has earmarked the explosive, star-studded group the past couple of years.
This has to be a game wherein those notes named “Joe Burrow” or “Ja’Marr Chase” need to make impact plays. Getting Higgins back to his old self would be a more-than-welcomed sight, as would finding a solution to a capable rotational back to complement Joe Mixon.
It’s also a big week for Jonah Williams, who may be seeing another one of the league’s best pass-rushers in Nick Bosa. Williams has had a nice transition to the right side this year, but the elite guys have proven to give him fits over the years.
All that said, the most basic path to a Bengals win is also the most obvious: Burrow will have to play his “A game” this Sunday. While there may be areas for him to exploit in the secondary, the ever-watchful and problematic Fred Warner lurks, waiting to create a game-changing play.
While playing in San Francisco is incredibly tough in any given year, it’s especially tough against this quality roster and against a team with a sour attitude following two straight Ls.
Still, if the Bengals were to have to trek out west against a formidable Niners team, this is pretty much the optimum time. Rested off a bye, getting healthier, and in a week when they are attempting to implement more offensive wrinkles.
It’s just a matter of who suits up for San Francisco and if the two consecutive losses are a fluke or the beginning of a trend. It’s also a matter of which Bengals team shows up.
Let’s hope the mid-season surge starts now.
Prediction: Bengals 24, 49ers 23.