Don’t look now, but the Cincinnati Bengals are 7-6 with four games left on the schedule, three of which are against backup quarterbacks. The Joe Burrow-less offense, led by backup Jake Browning, is rolling, thanks in part to the sudden appearance of the running game, which could help propel them into the NFL Playoffs.
First, however, they have to take care of business against the visiting Minnesota Vikings, who take the field in Paycor Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Here are a few matchups to keep an eye on that could decide the winner at the end of the game.
Bengals Cornerbacks vs. Justin Jefferson/Jordan Addison
Cam Taylor-Britt is still out, so the team will field some combination of CTB, DJ Turner, and Chidobe Awuzie against an explosive Vikings receiver group. Fellow rookie DJ Ivey could see some snaps as well, considering he made some big plays in last week’s game.
This week, the corners will be facing rookie Addison, who has put up some impressive numbers this season despite a less-than-ideal quarterback situation. He’s obviously talented, and we all know who Jefferson is and what he can do. The Bengals' corners will have their hands full this weekend.
Bengals linebackers vs. TJ Hockenson
It’s not Jefferson who is leading the Vikings in receiving yards, it’s tight end TJ Hockenson. He leads all Vikings receivers with 840 yards and has more targets than any other tight end in the league, which is 13 more than Travis Kelce.
Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson were both in PFF’s top-20 coverage linebackers in the 2022 season, but both have fallen out of the top 50 so far in 2023. That might not be completely on them, though. Last season, they had Bates and Bell behind them, who had mastered their ability to communicate as a defensive.
Now, they have two young guys who are still learning the ins and outs of the position. It’s like expecting a running back to play well if you replace his All-Pro offensive line with rookies. There are going to be growing pains.
Nick Mullens is getting his first start of the 2023 season, and while he’s not a rookie, I would expect a quarterback coming off the bench with only four games left in the season to be looking at his tight end more often than not.
Bengals linebackers vs. Ty Chandler
Alexander Mattison isn’t practicing and is probably out on Saturday, which means the Vikings will lean on Ty Chandler. Chandler isn’t as big as Mattison, but he’s the Chase to Mattison’s Mixon. He’s an athlete, and if he gets the ball in space, he’ll do damage. With one eye on Hockenson and the other on Chandler, Wilson and Pratt are in for a challenging game.
The Vikings are sure to run the ball. We’ve seen what a running game can do for a quarterback without a ton of experience. The Bengals have struggled against the run for much of the season, but they held the Colts to less than 50 yards last week. This isn’t so much about Chandler in the run game as it is the short-passing game, though. The Vikings may try to use that as an extension of a run game if they can’t get anything going on the ground. This is where Chandler could be most dangerous.
Orlando Brown Jr./Jonah Williams vs. Danielle Hunter
The Vikings are in the same ballpark as the Bengals when it comes to rushing the passer. As a team, they’re middle of the road, but they have one really good edge rusher: Danielle Hunter, who has 14 sacks on the season. He mostly rushes from the left edge, where he’d face Brown, but about 20% of the time, he’ll line up on the right, where he’d face Williams.
The nice thing about playing in the AFC North is the Bengals have faced Myles Garrett and TJ Watt, who are probably the two best edge rushers in the league. Hunter is very good, but he’s not quite Watt or Garrett. The whole offensive line didn’t allow a single sack against the Colts. Can they pull it off two weeks in a row?
Joe Mixon/Chase Brown vs. Vikings Defensive Front
The Vikings have allowed the fifth-fewest yards on the ground in the NFL so far this year. Before the last couple of weeks, I would have said that was a death sentence for the Bengals, but they’ve made a conscious effort to commit themselves to running the ball.
Over the last two weeks, Mixon and Brown have combined for over 400 yards on the ground and through the air, and the offense, as a result, has put up 34 points in consecutive weeks.
The Vikings have proven they’re not going to let someone run on them, and I expect them to come into this game with the same game plan. They’ll want to limit the damage Mixon and Chase can do while sending extra pressure at Browning. At least that’s what I’d do until Browning proved to me that the last two weeks aren’t a fluke (they aren’t).
Zac Taylor vs. Kevin O’Connell
Neither team is in an ideal situation. Unless something wild happens, the best either team could hope for is a Wild Card spot. The Vikings are currently holding on to the No. 6 seed in the NFC, and the Bengals are considered “in the hunt,” tied with five other AFC teams at 7-6, but currently sit in the No. 10 spot.
If the Vikings win out, finishing at 11-6, they’re in the playoffs, and the same goes for the Bengals, so, for two teams without their starting quarterbacks, there is actually a lot on the line here.
Taylor and O’Connell can’t come in and call plays like they’re working with a full deck, and this win could absolutely come down to coaching. These teams feel similar to each other: Great weapons on offense with a backup quarterback and good defenses. Taylor could absolutely be the x-factor the Bengals hoped he’d be when they hired him before the 2019 season. He didn’t disappoint over the last two weeks, winning games they weren’t expected to. Can he do it again?
What matchups are you keeping an eye on?