Each team has a gutsy young quarterback under center, Andy Dalton for Cincinnati and John Skelton for Arizona.
The Cardinals’ Beanie Wells is a power runner in the fashion of the Bengals’ Cedric Benson.
Defensive back Patrick Peterson will cover wide receiver A.J. Green in a matchup of two of the NFL’s most exciting young players.
But neither offense nor defense will decide this game. The winning team will be the one wins the special teams battle.
Cincinnati has a distinct advantage in the kicking game. Mike Nugent, an Ohio State product, is one of the most reliable kickers in the league, hitting 93 percent of his field goals, placing him second in the NFL in field-goal percentage.
Jay Feely is a veteran accustomed to the pressure of a playoff run, but he is not having his finest season. In his time with the Cardinals, he has made 75 percent of his attempts, ranking 30th in the league.
Considering just 2.3 points per game separates each team’s offensive output, a missed field goal may decide the game and possibly playoff spot for either team.
Nugent has proven more trustworthy than Feely in 2011, and considering the Bengals recent red-zone woes, Cincinnati will need him to be sharp on Saturday.
The Bengals and Cardinals rack up almost an identical amount of yards per game. Arizona ranks 22nd in the NFL and Cincinnati 23rd, with a minuscule difference of just .3 yards per game.
This means field position will be at a premium and the punting units for each team will have a significant influence on the outcome.
The Bengals would be best served to avoid Patrick Peterson like he was a census taker. Kevin Huber can punt the ball into the stands, the press box, or even Mike Brown’s lap, as long as he doesn’t punt it to Peterson, who leads the league in punt return touchdowns. Peterson ranks second in returns of 40 yards or more and fourth in returns of 20 yards or more.
In a game between nearly identical offenses, the Bengals cannot afford to give the Cardinals a short field. If they allow Patrick Peterson to get into space and break for big runs, they will find themselves playing from behind.
The advantage in the return game goes to the Cardinals, but Cincinnati’s Brandon Tate is a solid returner in his own right.
Tate has a punt return for a touchdown of his own this season, and he is in the top 10 in returns of 40 yards or more. With the exception of one atrocious game against the Steelers, he has played well all season and can help put the Cincinnati offense in a position to succeed.
Expect to watch an even game between the Bengals and the Cardinals on Saturday. At times, expect to feel like you are watching one team play its mirror image.
Neither offense nor defense will outshine the other in this contest, but the winner will be determined by which team wins in the third phase, special teams.