The Bengals look to rebound from a deflating 30-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Minnesota Vikings arrive after playing some of their best ball in a 48-30 win over the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
Matt Cassel has been given the starting job in Minnesota, and you can be sure he’ll do all he can to try and keep it. Those Bengals fans expecting a walkover won’t find one in this contest.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the key matchups to watch in this one.
Bengals Special Teams vs. Cordarrelle Patterson
After a season of strong performances, the Bengals’ special teams unit came crashing back to Earth last week when Antonio Brown took a 67-yard punt return to the house. In those fleeting seconds, the Bengals were manhandled by the Steelers across the board, and Kevin Huber’s season was snuffed out by a controversial hit.
The Vikings will provide little reprieve. Kick returns will be the focus as Minnesota boasts one of the best return men in the league, Cordarrelle Patterson. That’s according to Vikings.com:
Since 2011, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s first year in Minnesota, the Vikings are tied with the Ravens, Broncos and Titans for the most combined kick return TDs with 6 (4 kickoff returns, 2 punt returns). The 4 kickoff return TDs lead the NFL.
Patterson’s 1,199 kickoff return yards are the most in the NFL in 2013 and ranks 3rd all-time among Vikings. His 109-yard kickoff return TD against Green Bay on 10/27/13 is the longest kickoff return in NFL history. He needs 147 kickoff return yards to break the Vikings single-season record (Buster Rhymes, 1,345 in 1985).
Patterson is averaging just over 30 yards per return, and last week the Eagles kicked away from him all day long. The Bengals are unlikely to do the same, but the prospect of another tough afternoon is sure to be factoring in preparations.
Matt Cassel vs. Bengals Secondary and Andy Dalton vs. Vikings Secondary
When it comes to the opposing secondary, both Andy Dalton and Matt Cassel have favorable matchups in Week 16. But, based on their performances last week, Cassel is best placed to take advantage. He threw for an impressive 382 yards against the Eagles, including two touchdowns. He also grabbed himself a rushing TD.
The Bengals continue to be cautious with Terence Newman in an attempt to have him at full health come playoff time. That means another start for Dre Kirkpatrick, who is showing progress opposite Adam Jones.
Minnesota’s secondary is equally banged up, with Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes still listed as questionable. However, their understudies won’t give Andy Dalton an easy ride according to our Vikings FC, Bill Hubbell:
The secondary seemed to take a huge step forward last Sunday with the return of its anchor, Harrison Smith...
The defensive backfield is a cobbled-together group right now, with the top three cornerbacks missing the Philadelphia game. The group surrendered a lot of yards to the Eagles, but came up with plays when they needed to. Robert Blanton, Marcus Sherels, Andrew Sendejo and Shaun Prater all pitched in with contributions.
Dalton is prone to throwing interceptions, and for the Vikings to win on Sunday, they'll need at least a couple of turnovers from their pass defense.
Leslie Frazier has been asked a number of times this week why he took Christian Ponder over Andy Dalton in the 2011 draft. He’ll be hoping that his cornerbacks can answer that question with some interceptions on Sunday.
Streak vs. Streak
The Bengals are (6-0) at home in 2013. They’ve turned Paul Brown Stadium into a fortress, and they’ve beaten some good teams to do it. New England, Indianapolis and Green Bay have all failed to produce a win in the Queen City.
Minnesota’s record isn’t quite as impressive. The Vikings are the NFL’s only team that is winless on the road, with an abysmal (0-6-1) record. Sunday will be their last opportunity to turn that 0 into a 1.
However, the record doesn’t do justice to how well Minnesota has been playing in recent weeks. If it wasn’t for Joe Flacco’s last-minute heroics in Week 14, the Vikings would come into this game having won three in a row.
It’s interesting to note how much emphasis the Bengals have put on being undefeated at home following the loss in Pittsburgh. There is a danger that Cincy could believe its own hype a little too much.
Jared Allen and Brian Robinson vs. Anthony Collins and Andre Smith
If the Vikings want to stop Andy Dalton from having any success through the air, they need to bring consistent pressure.
Luckily they have just the men to do it. Jared Allen has nine sacks to his name this year and is tied with fellow defensive end Brian Robinson at the top of the list. Allen’s had four in the last three games, while Robinson’s had a sack in every one of the past five.
Bengals fans will know that Dalton thrives when he has good protection. When he doesn’t have it, he’s rattled all day long. Cincinnati only gave up one sack to the Steelers, but Pittsburgh was generating enough pressure to bother Dalton consistently. A loss followed. In the previous three, the Bengals gave up zero sacks and won every game.
The Vikings have their work cut out against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but given the up-and-down play of Andre Smith and Anthony Collins, they could find success.
Other matchups to watch:
Keep an eye on Marvin Lewis vs. Leslie Frazier this week. Buildup for this one has centered on Frazier’s stint in Cincinnati as a defensive coordinator for Marvin Lewis in 2003-2004. Under Frazier, the Bengals defense ranked 28th in 2003 and 19th in 2004. Despite improvement, Lewis fired him. When asked about it earlier this week, Coach Lewis took the blame. Bad blood or not, Frazier will be keen to put a dent in Cincinnati’s playoff hopes and get one over on his old boss.
Another one to watch out for is Adrian Peterson vs. the Bengals Defense. The Bengals unit ranks fifth against the run. Of the teams above them, Detroit gave up 93 yards and two TDs to Peterson in Week 1, while Carolina held him to 62 yards and zero TDs in Week 5.