In the early window, Sky viewers will get to see perennial play-off participants Green Bay take on an unusually upbeat Cincinnati Bengals. Last week, the Packers stuck it to Pittsburgh, with Aaron Rodgers throwing two TD passes to Randall Cobb in a 27-17 win, while Joe Burrow led the Bengals to a last-gasp 24-21 victory against Jacksonville in front of a primetime Thursday Night Football audience.
A clash of two 3-1 teams
After an out-of-the-blue 38-3 capitulation to the Saints in Week 1 – probably a hangover of a tumultuous offseason in which Rodgers flirted with hosting TV game shows – normal service seems to have resumed in Wisconsin. The Packers have shaken off the rust and look like their old selves again, averaging more than 30 points a game in their three wins since then.
As expected, they put the Lions and Steelers to the sword by a combined 28-point margin and, in a far sterner test, emerged with a two-point victory against the 49ers in Week 3. Unsurprisingly, the 3-1 Packers lead the NFC North and they’re in the top five in most power rankings.
More surprisingly, the Bengals have also started 3-1 but, with all due respect to the Vikings, Bears, Steelers and Jaguars, they have yet to face a team of Green Bay’s calibre. Cincy’s place at the top of the AFC North is partly due to their double-digit win in Pittsburgh – the only in-division game so far – but their other results have all been decided by three points.
Against Jacksonville, Cincy were a desperate, 4th-and-1 goal-line stand away from being three scores down at half time. That scare seemed to galvanise them in the second half, during which they scored all 24 of their points, including Evan McPherson’s game-winning FG.
Will the Cincy D bend or break?
Defensively, Cincinnati are definitely exceeding expectations. The unit is allowing only 18.8 points (8th in the NFL) and 323 yards (7th) per game, and they’ve also conceded just four passing touchdowns, good for sixth in the league.
Second-year linebacker Logan Wilson is setting the tone with three interceptions (second only to Trevon Diggs), while BJ Hill has three sacks. Yet we can’t overlook the fact that the Bengals have only faced the likes of Andy Dalton and Big Ben. Luckily, safety Jessie Bates and corner Chidobe Awuzie should both return from injury this week, which can only help to keep Aaron Rodgers from making big, explosive plays. The 17-year veteran has completed 64.5% of his passes for 897 yards and an 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season.
His leading receiver, Davante Adams, is one of the league’s best. He has 373 yards (#7 in the NFL) and a league-high 31 receptions but only one TD, but another deep threat, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, remains on IR. Also on the physically unable to perform list is LT David Bakhtiari (knee), yet their patched-up O-line seems to be holding up well enough to allow Rodgers to do his thing.
On the ground, Green Bay are averaging 92.5 yards game. Aaron Jones leads the team with 206 yards and two rushing touchdowns, but he’s only averaging 3.7 yards per attempt. That said, he’s made 13 catches out of the backfield and bagged a hattrick of receiving TDs against Detroit in Week 2, so he’s a genuine dual threat. It’s also worth noting that the Bengals run defence has been fairly stout so far, holding Dalvin Cook and David Montgomery to 61 yards and Najee Harris to just 40.
Go big or go home
The flip side of the coin is that the Bengals offence is only ranked 20th in points per game (23) and 22nd in yards. They’ve also scored just one TD in their four first quarters so far, but Cincinnati can’t afford another sluggish start this Sunday. They’ll need to score fast and often if they’re going to hang with the Pack.
Because of Joe Burrow’s season-ending injury midway through the 2020 campaign, it’s easy to understand the team’s slow start but with consecutive wins under their belt, they are starting to pick up steam. Joey B boasts a 72.9% completion rate (third in the NFL), 988 passing yards, nine TDs and four INTs, three of which came in a hideous streak against Chicago. He’s averaging 247 yards per game and 9.2 yards per attempt (also third in the league) and although he’s been sacked 11 times, the much-berated Cincy O-line has given him up just once in the last two games. Keeping him upright is key.
The rest of the offence is heating up too. Rookie WR Ja’Marr Chase is the pick of the bunch with 297 yards and four TDs. With the Packers’ two best defensive players – shut-down corner Jaire Alexander (shoulder) and linebacker Za’Darius Smith (back) – out of action for the foreseeable, things could potentially open for him, as well as Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, assuming he’s back from a shoulder injury. On the ground, Joe Mixon leads the way with 353 yards (yet another ‘third best in the league’ ranking) and two touchdowns. Alas, he sprained his ankle last week and is doubtful. Time will tell where HC Zac Taylor alters his game plan or tries to get Samaje Perine and Chris Evans to fill in like for like.
Alexander’s absence will be a huge loss for the Packers secondary, as it leaves Kevin King (currently under the concussion protocol) and first-round rookie Eric Stokes holding the fort. Elsewhere, LB De’Vondre Campbell leads the way for Green Bay with 40 tackles, Rashan Gary has 1.5 sacks and defensive linesman Kenny Clark is always a handful. Campbell will be hoping that new recruit Jaylon Smith, acquired from the Cowboys a few days ago, fits in quickly to bolster a defence allowing 25 points per game (19th).
This clash between the current Kings of the North in their respective conferences could be a sneakily entertaining game and will probably be decided through the air. Oddsmakers make the Packers road favourites by 3.5 points but that feels a little miserly, even factoring in Cincinnati’s 10-day break.
While Burrow is getting back to his best, he’s up against the reigning MVP. Plus Cincy’s three wins have come against teams with a combined record of 2-10 so this should be a better litmus test as to whether Cincinnati are legitimate contenders or just beneficiaries of a soft early schedule.
As for the coaches, Zac Taylor and Matt LeFleur (on the Rams’ staff together in 2017) are third-year HCs on opposite trajectories. LeFleur boasts a 31-9 record, including two 13-3 seasons that ended with NFC Championship games, while Taylor’s two- and four-win seasons form the foundation of a less-impressive 9-26-1 tally. That’s another reason why it would be one hell of a statement if the Bengals could win this one and improve to 4-1.
However, I’m not convinced they will. Sure, if Cincinnati replicate their second-half performance from last Thursday (Burrow completed 17-of-20 for 253 yards and two TDs, netting a 152.1 rating), anything’s possible. But hand on heart, it’s hard to see past a Green Bay win.
Green Bay 30, Cincinnati 24
Feature image: Andy Lyons – Getty Images