It’s the last week of the season for the Cincinnati Bengals. They’re eliminated from playoff contention and officially have nothing left to play for except pride. They’re hosting the Cleveland Browns, who have already locked up the fifth seed in the AFC and are sitting some starters to avoid injury, which explains why the Bengals are a touchdown favorite via DraftKings Sportsbook.
Technically, the game means nothing for either team, but there is still a lot to keep an eye on. There is a player looking to cement 2023 as the greatest year of his career, a long-time Bengals player likely playing in his last game in stripes, and more.
Here are a few matchups to watch:
Tyler Boyd vs. Browns secondary
Tyler Boyd is the longest-tenured active player on the roster, and he is likely playing in his final game in a Bengals uniform on Sunday. I say “likely” because anything is possible, but with Tee Higgins also entering free agency, and Ja’Marr Chase able to negotiate his extension once the season ends, Boyd is left on the outside. He has been a reliable receiver for both Andy Dalton and Joe Burrow throughout his career and will be missed. I hope, considering he’s likely moving on, he absolutely goes off on Sunday.
Trey Hendrickson vs. Browns left tackle
Hendrickson is currently tied with TJ Watt of the Steelers with 17 sacks on the season, which currently leads the NFL. A Bengals player has never led the NFL in sacks at the end of the season, and if Hendrickson can get one or two (or three?) on Sunday, he could wake up Monday morning having won the NFL’s 2023 sack race. He doesn’t get a ton of national attention, but what Hendrickson has done this season has been nothing short of miraculous. I’m not sure who will be starting at left tackle on Sunday, but Hendrickson has plenty to play for, and he’s facing off against a backup left tackle, watch out.
Jeff Driskel vs. Bengals’ young secondary
Starting Browns quarterback Joe Flacco is sitting, and Jeff Driskel is starting in his place. The Bengals have one of the youngest secondaries in the NFL, and it shows. They’re giving up more yards per attempt (8.2) than any other team in the league, and they’re the only team giving up over eight yards per attempt. They definitely have an issue when it comes to giving up explosive plays, but they now have a chance to end the season on a high note by not allowing a guy who is the BACKUP TO JOE FLACCO to make them look foolish. Hopefully, they’re able to limit the Browns passing game and avoid going 0-6 in the AFC North this season.
Irv Smith Jr. vs everyone
After Joe Burrow and the Bengals were able to get both C.J. Uzomah and Hayden Hurst paid, it looked possible the same could happen to Irv Smith Jr., who signed a one-year deal with the Bengals before the 2023 season. Fast-forward to Week 18 and Smith only has 115 yards and a single touchdown. Both Tanner Hudson, who leads the tight end room, and Drew Sample have had more receiving yards than Smith, and PFF has graded both Hudson and Sample as better run blockers as well. If Smith gets a shot on Sunday, it would help his future in the NFL if he could at least get in the end zone.
Zac Taylor vs. expectations
The Bengals went to a Super Bowl and then the AFC Championship in back-to-back years, only to come into Week 18 with an 8-8 record, having already been eliminated from the playoffs just a year later. Of course, quarterback Joe Burrow’s health had so much to do with it, but the Bengals still seem to have underachieved this season. Maybe that’s because so much was expected this season, but, regardless of how you view it, 2023 has been a disappointment. Taylor now has a shot to end the season on a high note. They can avoid going winless in the division, and finish the season with a winning record. A big win here could become a springboard to a successful 2024 season.