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Vikings at Bengals Game Preview: Saturday Afternoon Special

Two teams with razor-thin margins for error face-off against each other on Saturday with battered rosters.

When Joe Burrow went down with a wrist injury back in Week 11, pretty much everyone from the outside looking in went into “mock draft mode” with eyes ahead to 2024.

Jake Browning took over midway through that critical Week 11 clash against the Ravens, and while there were sparks, a sense of being overwhelmed seemed to permeate through the team.

That carried over a week later in another pivotal divisional game against Pittsburgh, with Browning and the offense mustering just 10 points in another loss. Talk of the Bengals potentially securing a top-10 pick and what to do with it was all the rage within the Who Dey masses.

Yet, Zac Taylor, Browning, and the rest of the team had other designs. With some tweaks of the offense and a renewed vigor, Cincinnati has rattled off two straight wins—against playoff contenders, no less—putting them above .500 and smack in the middle of the conference bracket race.

A few states to the Northwest of The Queen City, another franchise familiar with football heartbreak was enduring a very similar fate. The Vikings had a similarly slow start, plodding to a 0-3 record, only to lose Kirk Cousins in Week 8 to a torn Achilles.

Minnesota attempted a salvage of their season by trading for then-Cardinals starting quarterback, Joshua Dobbs. It paid off for a hot minute, as he led Minnesota to two prompt wins.

However, unlike Browning (at least at present), Dobbs regressed and lost the magic he once had bottled up, with the Vikings going 1-2 thereafter, with their only win being a 3-0 win against the Raiders last Sunday. That lackluster output has once again forced Minnesota to make a quarterback change to Nick Mullens this week.

And that, for the most part, catches us up with things as we head into Week 15, where these two teams face off at Paycor Stadium for a Saturday Special. It’s a critical game for two teams clinging to their playoff lives.

Cincinnati’s defense has been a shell of its 2021-2022 self, preferring to rely on timely turnovers and the infrequent big play over the mundanely effective approach of “just getting off of the field.” They’ve struggled with tackling, consistency, and inexperience in the secondary, creating a mix of problems.

Yet, against a couple of solid offenses in the past couple of weeks, the Bengals have shored up their porous run defense. As they hovered around the bottom of the league in rushing yards allowed this year, the unit has allowed an average of only 58.5 yards per game in these two wins.

That’s been a quiet key to this little run by the Bengals. Not so quietly, the Bengals’ maligned rushing attack has also helped matters.

Joe Mixon has 40 carries and two of his highest rushing yard outputs in the past two weeks, while the re-addition of Chase Brown to the stable has been a revelation. The rookie has popped off a big play in each of the last two games and did so in both the run and the pass.

Oh yeah, and the heady play by Browning in an offense catered to his strengths has had a say. His Week 13 AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award is just one of the accolades—tangible, verbal, or otherwise—that he has accumulated.

And, while the Vikings faithful have to be pleased to continue to be in the playoff mix right now after everything the team has overcome, they have to wonder what could have been with No. 6.

One of the storylines intertwining these two teams this week resides in Browning being a backup with Minnesota from 2019-2021. He was released by Minnesota in one of the later rounds of cuts in 2021, and Cincinnati scooped him up.

Of course, another storyline is in one of the many LSU connections seen around the league. Two of the league’s best wideouts and teammates on that legendary 2019 Tigers Championship team, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase, will be facing off against each other this week.

Both Browning and Mullens have to be feeling that getting those respective players double-digit targets this week. Cincinnati didn’t need that last week against Indianapolis, but it definitely paid dividends the previous week against the Jaguars.

Minnesota’s defense poses a big problem this week for Cincinnati, though. While Browning and the Bengals masterfully navigated the onslaught of pass-rush prowess from the Colts last week, Brian Flores’ crew brings an edge and hyper-aggression.

While overall stat columns don’t readily show it, Minnesota’s defense has kept the ship afloat throughout the twists and turns the quarterback carousel has brought. They may need their best overall effort of the season on Saturday for a variety of reasons.

The biggest, of course, is because Mullens is making his first start for the Vikings and first since 2021 with the Browns. He brought some excitement to the 49ers a handful of years ago in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo, but he’s also 5-12 as an NFL starter.

Along with Jefferson, Mullens will undoubtedly look T.J. Hockenson’s way, who’s having an outstanding season with 85 catches, 839 yards, and five scores. Alexander Mattison is out this week, but Vikings faithful seem to be excited at the prospect of Ty Chandler getting a higher role this week.

There’s two sides of the coin here. The Bengals could be viewed as having a leg-up in this one if Dobbs was starting, given their success against him earlier this season in Arizona. A scenario exists wherein Mullens, Chandler, and other unknowns from the Vikings could bring a sneakiness to Paycor and show the Bengals things they weren’t expecting.

Those who have “Bengals PTSD” have seen this song and dance countless times before, particularly with a lethal tight end matchup.

However, most of those examples came in the pre-Taylor eras, and these Bengals seem to be in a good headspace right now. And that said, the other scenario for the Vikings (and potentially the more likely one) is that Mullens and the Mattison-less offense struggle to find footing and the ability to score points.

Last week’s, um, “defensive struggle” between the Vikings and Raiders gives pause to the thought that Minnesota will hit a score-fest this weekend—even with a quarterback change. Yes, Las Vegas turned things around in a big way on Thursday night, but that seems like the outlier rather than the norm.

It’s going to be a bit of a task for these teams to score points for various reasons this week, but Cincinnati should keep their good vibes rolling.

Bengals 20, Vikings 16

And here are the Week 15 Bengals Reacts results, in which fans voiced their confidence in the direction of the team and if they make the NFL Playoffs.

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Who Dey!