Two AFC Conference teams with quite a bit at stake face off this Sunday afternoon at Nashville's LP Field when the visiting Cincinnati Bengals take on the Tennessee Titans. Kickoff is set for 4;05 PM, and the early NFL odds have Tennessee by -3 points at home.
Along with the Buffalo Bills, the 2011 Bengals are the AFC's surprise team. After years of mediocrity or worse, high draft picks and maturity have borne fruit for coach Marvin Lewis' squad, and they find themselves at 5-2, tied with Baltimore, both a half game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. Riding a 4-game win streak, and losing their only 2 games by a total of 7 points, Cincinnati appears to be for real, although they have 2 games apiece remaining with the Ravens and the Steelers. With all the media attention devoted to Carolina's flashy rookie QB, Cam Newton, it's easy to overlook the Bengals rookie signal-caller, Andy Dalton. Newton, however, despite the big record-setting numbers, has led the Panthers to just 2 victories, while Dalton has quietly but efficiently directed the Bengals to 5 wins. The TCU product has thrown for 1,479 yards, completing 62.8% of his passes for 9 TDs. His favorite target is another rookie, WR A.J. Green, who has 5 TDs among his 35 receptions both who can start making rookie of the year arguments. Their most recent victory, 34-12 on the road over Seattle this past Sunday, was a microcosm of their season, displaying an impressive mix of ball-control, timely passing and a stifling defense.
The Bengal defense ranks 9th in passing yards allowed and 2nd in run defense, and the unit is young, talented and opportunistic, led by LB Rey Maualuga and a ball-hawking secondary, led by Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall. The 24 points surrendered to Denver in Week 2 was the most points allowed by the defense, and as long as injuries and complacency don't arise, this should be a season-long success story.
Only a half-game back of Houston in the AFC South, Tennessee needs to keep the "W"s coming to keep any playoff hopes alive. With the division experiencing a topsy-turvy season due to Peyton Manning's absence, the other three teams (Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville), see this as a rare opportunity that may not occur again, at least in the near future. Coming in off a 27-10 win over Manning-less Indianapolis, the Titans are looking to grab every victory they can, because their second-half schedule is daunting. QB Matt Hasselbeck led Tennessee on Sunday, throwing for 224 yards and a TD, while WR Nate Washington found the end zone twice as the Titans snapped a six-game winless streak to the Colts. One major area of concern for the Titans offense is the mysterious poor performance of Allpro RB Chris Johnson. Johnson, who led the NFL in rushing two seasons ago, has only 304 yards on 107 carries, a miniscule 2.8 average. There doesn't appear to be anything physically wrong with Johnson, and the team signed him to a $53 million contract extension earlier. His backup, 2nd-year RB Javon Ringer, has performed well, and if Johnson continues to struggle, a change might be imminent.
Defensively, the Titans are inconsistent, and the theory is that the unit misses former head coach Jeff Fisher's inspiration and effective schemes. Playing at home against a rookie QB, albeit one as successful as Dalton, may serve as a case of being "what the doctor ordered," for Tennessee, but the results have to be on the field, and not theoretically.
The Bengals are on a roll, and with the tough part of their schedule coming up, every victory is critical. As long as Dalton, Green and Co. perform above and beyond expectations, things are looking good. For Tennessee, they've shown an ability to "win ugly," and that might be necessary this upcoming Sunday.
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