In at least a purely physical sense, the Bengals will be hosting the Detroit Lions this Sunday.
In any sense beyond that – who cares? The Bengals are 5-9. They’re officially 32nd in the NFL in offense, with the 28th-ranked passing unit and 32nd-ranked rushing unit. They’re 0-3 against NFC North opponents this season after losing their last two games to two of them by a combined 14-67. It’s hard to find a team in the NFL that merits less confidence heading into their matchup this weekend.
The Lions at least, for their part, aren’t out of it yet. In most seasons and situations, 8-6 is a record that allows a team to control their own playoff destiny. Unfortunately, the NFC has six teams that currently have nine wins or more. Three of them are in the NFC South, and all three – the Falcons, Panthers and Saints – have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Lions. The starting point for the Lions’ playoff hopes is the Falcons (currently at 9-5) losing out, then winning out themselves. It’s not inconceivable, given their respective remaining schedules, but it’s not where a team wants to be two weeks out.
That being said, what does that matter to the Bengals faithful? Sunday will be Christmas Eve. Go play in the snow. Bake a ham. Watch a Christmas movie or two. Talk to your family – you might have grandparents or grandchildren or something, find out who they are. Cook up a meatloaf, plant an aluminum pole, air your grievances. If all else fails, just watch the other game available in your area in the 1:00pm ET time slot. Assuming you have one, of course – CBS may be throwing you Jacksonville @ San Francisco in the late afternoon slot instead.
If somehow, with all these things considered, you still want to spend your afternoon watching the Bengals? All I have left to give you is a preview.
OUT: OT Cedric Ogbuehi, OT Andre Smith, LB Nick Vigil
QUESTIONABLE: S George Iloka
Also listed: LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Darqueze Dennard, FB Ryan Hewitt, HB Brian Hill, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, HB Joe Mixon, LB Vincent Rey, S Shawn Williams
OUT: C Travis Swanson
DOUBTFUL: G T.J. Lang
QUESTIONABLE: DT Rodney Coe, OT Brian Mihalik, OT Ricky Wagner
Also listed: DE Dwight Freeney, HB Theo Riddick
OddsShark Predicted Score: Detroit 23.1, Cincinnati 23.0
Spread Consensus: Detroit -3
Vegas only giving the Lions a 0.1 point advantage seems borderline disrespectful. Do the Bengals truly have that close of a shot?
For one, injuries aren’t as actively working against the Cincinnati roster as they were earlier in the month. Ogbuehi and Smith are still out at offensive tackle, and their absences alone could still be daunting to the Bengals. The defense, however, is where the team was most sorely lacking starting personnel. Having Kirkpatrick and Dennard both healthy to flank William Jackson substantially helps the secondary. Having Burfict back at linebacker for the first time since Monday night against the Steelers helps the entire defense.
On offense, the Lions aren’t as wholly inept as the Bengals are – but their running game is. The Lions are notorious for how long they’ve been without a player reaching 100 rushing yards in a game. Reggie Bush most recently accomplished that for them, on Thanksgiving back in 2013. As far as seasonal ground production in 2017, the Lions are lead by third-year back Ameer Abdullah. At 513 yards on 151 attempts, Abdullah has an average 3.4 yards-per-carry mark and ranks as the 34th-leading rusher in the NFL.
The ground game will only look worse on Sunday if the Lions miss both Swanson and Lang. Which will just mean – as they too often do – the Lions will lean on Matthew Stafford to carry the offense.
On one hand, that’s hardly a bad place to be in 2017 – Stafford is among the league’s best quarterbacks outright. He operates fine in an offense that uses Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Theo Riddick as the top receiving threats. On the other hand, that’s still a limited hand to play, and one the Bengals would prefer to play against. Riddick and Tate excel as short-area catch-and-run players, which allows the Lions to pass out of running situations. This should allow the Bengals to play more out of pass sets defensively – where their best talent can come out. Vigil still being out at LB further drives that point – Vincent Rey shouldn’t be on the field as a third linebacker.
Instead, with health returning to other players, perhaps Dennard can play the slot and Fedejelem the dime. Perhaps Carl Lawson can come out from under the dust that’s been allowed to collect on him? That’s especially worth wondering about if Wagner misses the game for the Lions, although that’s less likely.
As for the Bengals’ offense – the Lions have pretty average guys on the edge behind Ezekiel Ansah. They might be negated, but there’s no way to reliably project that in advance. A.J. Green will have his hands full every time he lines up across from Darius Slay. Glover Quin in the secondary isn’t a slouch either; Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs have had moments. Linebacker, for the most part, is the weak link of the position groups. Outside of rookie Jarrod Davis, who still has yet to fully develop, other ‘backers on the Lions could be replaces sooner than most think.
It’s a more evenly matched game that the last two were, if it can claim nothing else.
Bengals 20, Lions 24