A big rematch is afoot, with the Cincinnati Bengals traveling to Nashville to take on the Titans. It’s a big litmus test for both teams, who sport impressive records, but have yet to truly achieve a win against a high-quality opponent.
This week brings that opportunity, and we chatted with Jimmy Morris of SB Nation’s Music City Miracles this week to get a look at things ahead of this marquee matchup.
1.) AC: Tennessee purged some key players on their roster and Ryan Tannehill publicly spoke on having trouble rebounding from last postseason, while also battling an ankle injury this year. From a perspective of someone who covers the team and/or a fan perspective, are folks surprised at their 7-3 record to this point?
JM: It is a little bit surprising. This team has once again battled a ton of injuries. In the game against the Broncos two weeks ago they played without four defensive starters, and that doesn’t even count Harold Landry who was lost for the year the week before the season started. Mike Vrabel continues to work his magic in getting this team ready to play no matter what the circumstances are.
The other reason it is surprising is that the offense has been bad. The offensive line has struggled since Taylor Lewan went down in week two. They had to play two games without Ryan Tannehill - because of the ankle injury you referenced.
They started Malik Willis, a rookie, in those two, and he didn’t have Treylon Burks. We saw signs of life from the passing game in Green Bay last week. Hopefully they found something to build on in that one.
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2.) AC: Derrick Henry was coming back from an injury in last year’s playoff game and while the Bengals made some key stops on him, he still got his. How should we feel about his outlook this time around, particularly with what looks like a weaker wide receiver position group than that from the Divisional Round last year?
JM: This offense obviously runs through The King. He has been bottled up a little bit the last couple of weeks, but if they can hand it to him 25-30 times they will be thrilled because that means they are in a positive game script.
The weapons on the outside certainly aren’t A.J. Brown and the artist formerly known as Julio Jones like they were in January. Treylon Burks is coming on, but this offense needs Henry to be effective to win most games.
3.) AC: With or without Ja’Marr Chase, how confident are you in the Titans’ ability to hold up against Bengals pass-catchers this week and why?
JM: There is a chance the Titans could have the defensive backs they want out there all together for the first time this season in this one. One of their starting safeties, Amani Hooker, has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. It looks like he will play this week.
Their nickel back, Elijah Molden, made his season debut in week 10 but missed Week 11. He appears to be trending toward playing as well.
The guy to watch on the injury report is Kristian Fulton. He played last Thursday night in Green Bay but has been bothered by a hamstring injury for the last few weeks. Having all of those guys out there, with the combination of the ability to create a pass rush gives them a fighting chance to keep those guys in check.
4.) AC: Aside from Henry making some plays against the Bengals last year in the playoffs, D’Onta Foreman had a big impact on just a few carries. He is gone, so who might bring some ancillary impact like Foreman last year?
JM: Their third down back, Dontrelle Hilliard, has been a weapon - especially in the red zone. He has 4 receiving TDs this season on just 21 targets.
Rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo is a guy they have talked about wanting to get more involved. In the last 3 games he has 3 catches for 120 yards. Good things happen when they throw him the ball instead of dusty Geoff Swaim.
The final guy to watch is Burks. He came back from a turf toe injury last week and had his first career 100-yard receiving game. Hopefully that is the start of him really becoming an impact player for them.
5.) AC: Right now, Cincinnati looks like a 2.5-point favorite, per DraftKings this week. How do you feel about this line and is it a fair one? How do you see this one going?
JM: I really thought the line would be closer to -1. The Titans have the better record and the game is in Nashville. Mike Vrabel played the revenge narrative down this week saying that half of the players on this team weren’t here for the playoff loss. That’s all well and good, but there are a lot of people in that locker room that feel like the Bengals took away their chance to win a Super Bowl. There will be some extra juice int his one from the Titans side - especially Tannehill. I think the Titans win 24-21.
Our thanks to Jimmy Morris and Music City Miracles! Go check out our chat with them as well!