Now more than ever, it's crunch time for the 2011 Bengals. Finding themselves in must-win territory, Andy Dalton and Co. will have more than a tough test this weekend as they play host to the red-hot Arizona Cardinals.
Tim Tebow may dominate the likes of NFL Network and ESPN, but John Skelton is quietly having a solid season filling in for fragile Kevin Kolb. That being said, it remains unclear who will start when the Cards travel to Cincy, and the decision is likely giving Ken Whisenhunt a headache as we speak.
Regardless of who is under center come game time, the Bengals will have their hands full with likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson opposing them.
With a playoff spot hanging in the balance, the pressure is on for the young Bengals roster. Here's 10 keys to how they can emerge with a W.
Andy Dalton was hotly tipped as being a worthy candidate for the Rookie of the Year award in the first half of the season, but after recent struggles, talk has cooled somewhat.
Dalton will need to show a return to form if the Bengals want to remain afloat heading into Week 17. His over-reliance on A.J. Green in St.Louis was a cause for concern and was eerily reminiscent of Carson Palmer's over-reliance on Terrell Owens last year (and we all know how that ended up...).
If the "Red Rifle" can re-establish his connection with Jermaine Gresham and build on his erratic use of Jerome Simpson, the Bengals will not have to put such a hefty burden on their banged up star wideout.
Saturday will be the biggest game of Andy Dalton's career thus far, and if he can show the poise that he had early in the year, it will give his teammates and the fans belief that they can topple Baltimore at home to close out the season.
While Ced didn't exactly have a blockbuster day in St.Louis, he did post a TD on his way to 76 yards, helping to secure a crucial win for the Bengals.
It's likely that Benson is playing his final games as a Cincinnati Bengal, and after a tumultuous year, he will be looking to produce if he hopes to draw the consideration of a team in the offseason.
He will be given ample opportunity this weekend, especially considering A.J. Green's shoulder injury.
As the old cliche goes, if you want to win football games in December, you must run the football. Benson struggled to do so against the worst rushing defense in the league last week, and will need to step up his level of play if he hopes to put a dent in the No.18-ranked Cardinals.
He fumbled three times against the Rams and will be playing outdoors exposed to the elements at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday. The Bengals were lucky to recover every one of Benson's mistakes, but they might not have the same fortune if put in the same situation against Arizona.
Following injuries to Bobbie Williams and Andre Smith, the Bengals offensive line has really struggled of late. As a result, Cedric Benson has been unable to find running lanes, becoming fairly predictable, whilst Andy Dalton has been flushed out of the pocket on too many occasions.
Andre Smith was limited in practice on Thursday, so we can only assume that his return is questionable for Saturday's game.
With Smith not full-go in practice, he will likely play with some pain on Saturday if he takes to the field at all, making Mike McGlynn's performance that much more important.
It must be said, however, that Andrew Whitworth on the other end of the line has not been without his struggles in 2011. His erratic play has to frustrate Dalton, who would have hoped to be able to count on being protected on the left right now.
It will not be easy, but the Bengals must try to implore damage control tactics to avoid Peterson bringing the big play to Paul Brown Stadium. In other words, the Bengals need to kick the ball out of bounds or into the endzone.
Kevin Huber and Mike Nugent have been steady in their respective kicking games for Cincy, and both have great ball placement skills. But it will be down to special teams coach Darrin Simmons and Marvin Lewis to decide whether they have enough confidence in their unit to kick to Peterson.
Peterson has four TD's to his name in this his rookie season, and there is no doubt he will be looking to add to that tally.
The Bengals should and will kick to him in the early going, but if the game remains close as the third quarter winds down and Peterson looks dangerous, Lewis will need to consider eliminating that risk with so much at stake.
As previously noted, Andy Dalton is leaning a little too much on A.J. Green of late, and it's not entirely his fault. Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell have failed to provide a consistent pair of hands, the latter particularly struggling to achieve the same rapport that Jordan Shipley had with Dalton.
Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham have been Dalton's greatest assets outside of A.J. Green this year, and both will need to improve on pedestrian recent outings, especially considering the status of Green's shoulder as we head towards Saturday.
In reference to this topic, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden simply stated that "The other guys just have to do a better job of taking advantage of opportunities."
With Andre Caldwell all but done for the year and A.J. Green likely to get through Saturday with a few injections in his shoulder, the Bengals supporting cast needs to help their rookie QB out.
Jermaine Gresham could be the key to success through the air in this one. He has been a solid target for Dalton for the most part, but has struggled with drops recently. Expect a return to form on Saturday.
The Bengals gave up 11 penalties to the lowly Rams worth 101 yards that went a long way towards keeping the Rams in the game.
The Bengals are all too familiar with shooting themselves in the foot, and it is often their downfall. More often than not, a big play is followed by a penalty, effectively taking the wind out of Andy Dalton and marginalizing any momentum the Bengals build up.
Arizona is a far superior team to the Rams, and they will capitalise where St.Louis didn't. The Bengals can't afford to give up silly penalties on offense when they are already struggling with injuries and inconsistencies.
The Bengals players and staff referenced a strict officiating crew as a reason for why there were so many penalties last week, but they will likely have still spent time working on discipline this week in an attempt to limit their self-harming tendencies.
The Bengals should beat the Cardinals, but only if they don't beat themselves first.
Brandon Tate found his feet on Sunday in St. Louis, making a big contribution to the Bengals winning effort en route to a franchise record 481 yards this year.
Brandon Tate has left Bengals fans feeling frustrated for the most part in 2011. Despite a solid performance in St. Louis in which his 56-yard punt return set up a Bernard Scott touchdown, Tate has been largely ineffective in the return game.
With the potential for Patrick Peterson to make plays on special teams, the best way to counter it would be for Cincy to produce some special teams magic of their own.
Tate is beginning to show the talents that Marvin Lewis saw in him, but whether he can sustain that level of play remains to be seen. Tate was instrumental in helping out the offense, and he needs to do the same this week.
With a confidence-boosting game under his belt, Tate will have no excuses when he faces the Cardinals, and his performance will prove whether last week was merely a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come.
The Bengals were terrible on third down in St.Louis, posting a 27 percent efficiency rating on their way to 3-for-11 for the day.
Jay Gruden relied heavily on Cedric Benson on third down, and it often resulted in the veteran RB being stuffed in the backfield.
It highlights problems with the Bengals offensive line and will likely force Jay Gruden to put the ball in the air on third down.
Benson is a big back, and that serves him well on short yardage, but simply relying on brute force is not a sensible idea, and it's often a predictable one, as we saw the Rams figure out fairly early on.
The Bengals need to mix things up on third, utilising the abilities of Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham on short routes. Doing so will likely make pounding the ball with Benson more effective.
The Bengals pass-rushing unit has felt the absence of Carlos Dunlap in recent matchups. But despite the return of their most aggressive pass-rusher last week, they failed to muster the magic that saw them climb the defensive rankings early in the year.
Dunlap was largely ineffective in St. Louis, which can be attributed to rust and recovery in equal measure, but he will need to return to form if the Bengals want to stop Skelton and Kolb hooking up with Larry Fitzgerald on Saturday.
Dunlap is one of those players that energises those around him. If Dunlap plays well, the likes of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson tend to play well too.
He's had time to get back into the swing of things in practice this week, and his contribution will be integral to a Bengals victory at the weekend.
Marvin Lewis put it best in his postgame press conference last week:
"…we still need to look hard at improving our red zone possessions offensively. We get close and then we don’t make the play. We keep getting down there and keep chopping wood at it and make those plays."
Cincy have only completed 44.4 percent of their red zone possessions in their last three games, too often falling back on the steady leg of Mike Nugent. They rank 22nd overall this year, scoring TD's 48.8 percent of the time.
Every one of the Bengals' deficiencies on offense are equally responsible for their failings in the red zone, and everyone will need to raise their game if they want to up these stats.
This game is likely to be a close one, and the Bengals need to make the most of their opportunities. With a rookie QB and a currently fragile deep-threat, Cincy need to capitalise on short-yardage red zone possessions.