It’s not a very frequent occurrence that Week 3 in an NFL season decides the outcome for the rest of a team’s season. However, one could make a very compelling argument that that is the case this Sunday for the 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles.
Most of those on the outside looking in figured that 2020 was a “baby steps” kind of year for the Bengals, so losses against the Chargers and Browns, respectively, to start the season may not have been much of a surprise. Still, a lot of familiar mistakes from 2019 have made reappearances, causing familiar frustrations.
Most did not expect the same from the Eagles this year, though.
Armed with former No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz, a formidable offensive line, scrappiness at many other positions and an innovative coach in Doug Pederson, The City of Brotherly Love was hoping for another chase of the Lombardi this year after grabbing glory just three years ago.
Instead, important injuries have occurred and a lot of questions have been raised about the figureheads of the franchise. This matchup has some eerie similarities to the Bengals’ Thursday night class against Cleveland in the aspect of long-term concerns being raised about a supposed franchise quarterback pitted against Joe Burrow.
A week and a half ago, Baker Mayfield responded in a big way to his many critics, carving up the Bengals’ defense with a myriad of play-action passes and rollouts. The mobile and missile-armed Wentz undoubtedly took notes during film reviews this week.
Speaking of Burrow, this year’s No. 1 overall pick needs some help from his supporting cast. He put his team in a precarious position in Week 1 against L.A. with a couple of bad decisions and missed plays, but in true Burrow-ian fashion, he had his boys in a position to win or tie at the end of that game.
He played much better in Week 2, setting a rookie record for completions in a single game, while also notching 300-plus passing yards and three touchdowns. All of this with no interceptions on 61 throws.
All impressive, but the Bengals are still sporting a goose egg in the win column.
The offensive line continues to be a problem, as Burrow as taken over 20 hits in two games. Additionally, the balance the team has sought by inking running back Joe Mixon to a big deal has not been able to be had because of a lack of available running room.
The defense allowed just 16 points on their home turf in the opener, but were absolutely gouged by the Browns without two important interior defensive linemen in Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels. Atkins is out again this week and Daniels is questionable, making the Eagles matchup far more precarious.
Philly is battered on their offensive line, though. Starting guards Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks are both on Injured Reserve, potentially giving the edge to Daniels, Christian Covington, D.J. Reader and others on the inside of Cincinnati’s defensive line.
None of that will matter if the Bengals can’t generate a pass rush, though. Even without Atkins, the player from whom Cincinnati’s pressure generates, the Bengals have talented linemen.
Reader has played well so far, but his forte is against the run. Sam Hubbard, Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap all have NFL accolades to their respective names, but none of them have routinely been making impact plays this year. If Cincinnati is to have a chance this Sunday against Philadelphia, that needs to change.
On the other side of the ball, for both a win this Sunday and potential success going forward this year, Cincinnati also needs to get Mixon going. The past two seasons, it has taken two different coaching staffs and a carousel of offensive linemen numerous games to find consistency in the ground game.
They’ve found some formula that worked, hence why Mixon has eight 100-yard rushing games in the second halves of schedules in his first three pro seasons, but they can’t continue to wait to grab a spark so late once again in 2020. Burrow will make plays, but the amount of pass attempts, contact from opposing defenses on their prized rookie signal-caller and subsequent offensive predictability has to cease.
This isn’t a call to take the football out of No. 9’s hands per se, but that balance I spoke of earlier is crucial for long-term success.
For the Eagles, much of the past, brief 2020 story lies in Wentz’s performance through two games. He has just two touchdown passes against four interceptions and many data points are jarring for their fans.
Also to the chagrin of Iggles faithful is the potential absence of Fletcher Cox. He is one of the “IDL Mount Rushmore” faces from this decade, alongside Atkins, Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, so his looming vacancy should relieve Mixon, Burrow and their beleaguered offensive line.
Conversely, to the delight of Wentz, he’s going up against a franchise that has a stigma of getting struggling players back on track, making stars out of nobody’s and allowing the opposition to set personal bests. In a year where Cincinnati will need to start crawling before they run, it’s in this cynical facet of the contest that makes this another important game for Zac Taylor in his young head coaching career.
If Wentz is stoked to go up against the Bengals’ 11th-ranked pass defense, for whatever reason, that excitement should be quelled with the injury report. First-round receiver Jalen Reagor is out, as is his other physical target, Alshon Jeffery.
Nevertheless, will the Bengals be able to stop the run? They limited big plays in Week 1, but the Chargers gashed Cincinnati’s defense when Reader briefly left with cramps. The Browns devastated them in this facet last week, playing a form of keep-away.
Taylor is off to a 2-16 start as Cincinnati’s head coach and while ownership will undoubtedly show patience into 2021 with he and his staff, progressive steps need to be observed. Taylor is still 0-10 in one score games, as he and his team have yet to figure out how to snag a victory from the jaws of defeat.
It’s also a big week for A.J. Green, as questions on his continuing ability to be a game-changing receiver linger. He had just three receptions on 13 targets last week, as he and Burrow continue to find their groove.
If you’re a Bengals fan, you’re encouraged by the words coming from many of the team leaders after an intense eight days of practice leading up to this clash. Burrow’s take on the 0-2 start?
“Losing is unacceptable.”
The No. 1 overall pick learning about life in the NFL... pic.twitter.com/Wg2MFjsBEF— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 18, 2020
The Bengals have longed for a quarterback to take this embattled franchise on its back and will them to the promised land. It’s been a tough go for Burrow these first two weeks, but he’s walking the walk after talking the talk in just a two-game sample size.
Even so, Burrow has a lot to overcome if he wants this Bengals team to even sniff the postseason in his inaugural season. Roster deficiencies, injuries to critical players and demons dating back to 1968 sit in his way.
If the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner can steal a victory on Wentz’s home turf, it may be quite the narrative shift for the careers of both high-pick quarterbacks. It’s a big “if”, based on what we’ve seen so far, though.
For multiple reasons, we’ve forged a partnership with Pickswise. Every week when we preview the game on these posts, we’ll note how Pickwise.com’s supercomputer predicts the Bengals’ game will go.
PW’s version of “The Matrix” simulates every NFL game 10,000 times. Unfortunately, the zeroes and ones don’t have much faith in the Bengals this week. Their words:
Joe Burrow is promising, but he’s still a rookie with a terrible offensive line. Philly’s talented defensive front will be able to get pressure, which will be the difference in this game. Burrow will wilt with Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Fletcher Cox in his face, and the Eagles always seem to deliver when their backs are up against the wall.
Supercomputer says: Eagles cover -4.5 spread
If these first two weeks have told us anything about the Bengals, it’s that Burrow will keep this team in almost every game in just about every scenario. It’s very conceivable that the Bengals should at least be 1-1 right now.
Taylor needs to figure out how to win these close contests; ones that are piling up as the games go by. Of course, these victories will come with continued hard work, the nailing down of the basics and finding some semblance of that aforementioned offensive balance.
Or, he could just rely on the most promising rookie quarterback to enter the league since Andrew Luck.
It’s just two games into the Burrow era, so can’t we still use our hearts instead of our heads this week? Time for a signature win for Burrow—his first as a pro.
Bengals 27, Eagles 23
AC: This generation’s Vince Papale in waiting.