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Vikings vs. Bengals Preview: Bounce Back

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After a grueling road trip, the Vikings look to rebound at home against the Bengals.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals
It hasn’t been a great season for the Bengals.
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the Carolina Panthers snapped the Vikings’ eight-game win streak last Sunday, I have had a song stuck in my head: “Bounce Back” by Big Sean. The song’s opening line, “Last night took an L but tonight I bounce back,” has been a mantra of sorts for me over the past five days. The Vikings lost in extremely frustrating fashion but it felt more like an aberration than a sign of things to come. Every bounce seemed to go against them in Charlotte; this week’s game feels like a great opportunity for them to bounce back and clinch the division.

Since the song is still stuck in my head and I haven’t started a preview article with a song parody in a while, click the link and rap along!

Last week took an L but this week they bounce back
Wake up Sunday morning by the night division champ
Know this team is real, when they’re hit they bounce back...
Last week took an L but this week they bounce back
Though Case been good as hell, threw at Diggs it bounced back
Back in MSP so this week they bounce back
If you a real team, then you know how to bounce back

Don’t owe nobody, owe nobody
Winnin’ games is just their job, ain’t got no hobbies
Got the city lovin’ Adam cause he’s homegrown
NFC receiving throne though
Don’t leave him ‘lone and on his own though
Look, winning streak cut like an edit
But they don’t get mad or frenetic
The Bengals in town they pathetic
Lewis contract should be shredded
From Charlotte on a private jet to their own housing
And Adam T’s got one thousand
D star studded like the Paramount mountain
Everything they do is righteous
Betting on Vikes is the right risk
This isn’t a f**kin crisis
We’re never on some switching sides sh*t
They’ll switch gears by Sunday night shift
Sacking Dalton, he’s so frightened
Rhodes keepin’ Green in silence
We should beat ‘em every time mannn...

Last week took an L but this week they bounce back
Wake up Sunday morning by the night division champ
Know this team is real, when they’re hit they bounce back...
Last week took an L but this week they bounce back
Though Case been good as hell, threw at Diggs it bounced back
Back in MSP so this week they bounce back
If you a real team, then you know how to bounce back!


I hope you had as much fun rapping along to that as I did. (Why are you rolling your eyes? This 36-year-old, white-as-hell, Minnesotan father of two toddlers can spit hot fire! I swear!) Anyway, let’s conclude the musical portion of our preview and get to what we might see on the field Sunday.

At this point of the season, it’s often more about who we might see on the field. The Vikings injury report on Wednesday was incredibly busy. Xavier Rhodes and Mackensie Alexander were surprise additions, but hopefully they were sitting out as more of a late-season precaution. The main area of concern is the front line of the offense. The Vikings finished the game in Carolina with only two of their normal starters on the offensive line, and it showed against a tough Panthers front seven. Case Keenum was sacked six times and under pressure for much of the day. Mike Zimmer sounded pretty positive about getting Pat Elflein and Mike Remmers back this week. The status of Riley Reiff is more uncertain, and personally I’d be a little surprised if he played after seeing how he hurt his ankle last week. As Chris wrote on Wednesday, the Vikings can ill afford to have him out for long. But if Rashod Hill is the only spare part in the starting lineup Sunday, the Vikings should be in decent shape.

The situation at tight end is even murkier. All three tight ends on the active roster were listed on the injury report Wednesday, with Kyle Rudolph and Blake Bell not practicing at all. Their availability could greatly affect what kind of offense Pat Shurmur can call.

The injury report in Cincinnati is crowded with key players as well. Leading rusher Joe Mixon is in the concussion protocol, along with two integral pieces in their defense, Vontaze Burfict and Dre Kirkpatrick. Darqueze Dennard missed practice with a knee injury. With Adam Jones already on the IR, the Bengals secondary could be dangerously thin. George Iloka, who was on many wishlists to come to Minnesota in free agency, is still a very good safety. First round corner William Jackson is having a solid rookie year and teams are already starting to avoid throwing his way. But after that, it gets sparse in a hurry.

Cincinnati’s defense will need all the help they can get after last week’s putrid performance against the Bears. Yes, those Chicago Bears. The Bengals gave up a staggering 482 yards in a lopsided 33-7 home loss. Chicago utilized a healthy amount of play action to catch the Bengals out of position and gain yards in chunks all day.

If Mitchell Trubisky and Chicago’s no-name group of pass catchers can do that much damage, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs could be in for big days.

Play action obviously works best after establishing the run. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon might not be the 1-2 punch of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, but the Bears aren’t the only team that has run rampant on Cincinnati this season. The Bengals have allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL. With Burfict out and Geno Atkins limited to 12 snaps, Chicago had a field day. Even if both are at full capacity on Sunday, teams have still found plenty of success on the ground as long as those two are accounted for.

The Vikings should be able to move the ball consistently if the offensive line can protect Keenum. However, that’s a huge “if” against a Bengals defense that can get after the quarterback. Cincinnati has 36 sacks this year, four more than the Vikings. All four members of their starting defensive line have at least five sacks. Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap will be tough for whomever starts at tackle for the Vikings. Michael Johnson has found a nice little career renaissance since getting more snaps on the interior this season. The Bengals still have the deep D-line rotation that was a staple of their old Defensive Coordinator. While the Vikings have been generally good at avoiding sacks up until last week, they have allowed more pressure than the numbers suggest. Pro Football Focus has Keenum as the fourth-most pressured quarterback in the league, facing pressure on 38.9% of his dropbacks. Dominating in the trenches will be the Bengals’ best chance at pulling off the upset.

It will be interesting to see how the Vikings attack the Cincinnati defense on Sunday. If Rudolph is out or limited, I would expect to see a lot more C.J. Ham to help out with blocking in big sets. Ham has done great when called upon this season, and it’s always fun to post his unofficial gif on Twitter every time he makes a play. We could also see a lot of 3- and 4-receiver sets from the Vikings, especially if the Bengals are missing a couple secondary pieces. Jarius Wright, Laquon Treadwell, and Michael Floyd could all see an uptick in snaps this week. Chicago uses 3+ wide receiver sets less than any team in the league, yet they lined up that way fairly often last week. By my count, they had 3 more more players split out wide on 45 of their 76 plays (59%). Spreading Cincy out seemed to work well.

While the Bengals haven’t exactly been dominating on defense, things are worse on the other side of the ball. Cincinnati is dead last in total offense, first downs, average time per possession, and average plays per possession. They’re 31st in rushing yards, 30th in yards per attempt, and have been held under 300 yards in over half their games this season. Unsurprisingly, their troubles start up front. The offensive line has taken a big step back with the departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency. Left guard Clint Boling is the only member of the line that currently has a grade of above 50 from Pro Football Focus. Cedric Ogbuehi wasn’t a particularly good right tackle last year and isn’t a particularly good left tackle this year. Former cup-of-coffee Viking Andre Smith is back with his old team and back being his old mediocre self. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter should be able to meet at the quarterback frequently on Sunday.

When Andy Dalton isn’t getting sacked like he has 32 times this season, he has actually been...OK. Not great, but not horrible. Most of his statistics are right around the league average. As we have seen throughout his career, his effectiveness varies based on the players around him. Dalton is the Aquaman of quarterbacks; he’s only as good as his surroundings and supporting cast.

A.J. Green is still about as good as it gets when it comes to a supporting cast though. He’s 50 yards away from his sixth career 1,000 yard season and has found the end zone eight times. He also has 46 more targets, 21 more receptions, and 498 more yards than his next closest teammate (Brandon LaFell). If Rhodes can have another great game and neutralize Green, it could be very difficult for the Bengals to move the ball consistently.

The offensive cupboard isn’t completely bare for the Bengals outside of Green. Even if Mixon can’t go, Giovani Bernard is a good backfield backup plan. Bernard does a lot of the same things McKinnon does in the Vikings offense and is every bit as dangerous in the open field.

I suppose I could see the Bengals getting a handful of big plays while their defensive front makes it tough for the Vikings to be efficient on offense. But as the old Bill Parcells saying goes, you are what your record says you are. The Vikings are 10-3 and the Bengals are 5-8. The combined record of the four teams Cincinnati has beaten this year: 14-38. Sometimes it’s just that simple. With a healthier offensive line supporting them, a raucous home crowd behind them (including yours truly), and a lesser opponent in front of them, I’m confident the Vikings will win the ninth game in their past ten outings.

So confident, in fact, that I’m going to make the Vikings my Survivor Pool pick of the week. (Why do I suddenly hear hundreds of people faintly screaming “NOOOOOOO!” in the distance?) The Bengals looked like they were already planning their postseason vacations against the Bears last week. Protecting Keenum could be troublesome, but the defense should be able to tee off on Cincinnati’s shaky offensive line. If the Vikings can jump ahead early, the Bengals could throw in the towel again and make Marvin Lewis’ seat even hotter. The Vikings might be able to coast to an easy victory and clinch the NFC North with two games to spare.

Although two of the Vikings three losses this season have come to teams with big cats as mascots—thanks to former DN writer Kyle Segall for pointing out that random tidbit—I think the Vikings will bounce back in a big way against the team that dresses like Tigger. Because as everyone knows, Tiggers are good for bouncing.

Prediction

Vikings 27, Bengals 13


And now for the rest of my Week 15 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

COLTS over Broncos

This is one of the worst games of the year, but it still makes me happy. Watching both of Peyton Manning’s former teams suck so hard gives me a glimpse into what it will probably be like for the Packers once Aaron Rodgers leaves.

Bears over LIONS

Picking the upset here because it looks like Chicago might have figured some things out and Detroit almost lost to the lowly Bucs despite Tampa committing five turnovers. Detroit is 2-4 at home and begging to finally get knocked out of the playoff picture. Do the merciful thing, Chicago.

Chargers over CHIEFS

The 2016 Vikings lost an embarrassing home game in Week 15 to go 7-7. I’m picking the 2017 Chiefs to do the same since they’re basically the same team.

BILLS over Dolphins

Miami already won their Super Bowl last Monday.

Ravens over BROWNS

After blowing the perfect chance to finish off the Packers last week, Cleveland is dead to me. Just disband the franchise.

Packers over PANTHERS

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. If we want to kill the Packers’ playoff hopes once and for all, we’re going to have to do it ourselves in Lambeau next week.

SAINTS over Jets

If you’re playing against any Saints in your fantasy playoffs this week, my condolences.

Eagles over GIANTS

The Carson Wentz injury hurt in a lot of ways. Philly lost their offensive leader and their title hopes took a big hit. I lost the chance to watch a player from my alma mater possibly win the MVP and play in his first playoff games. Arif lost his trolling muse. It’s a sad day all around. (But still not nearly as sad as the Giants, of course.)

REDSKINS over Cardinals

Only because I have Kirk Cousins going in my fantasy playoff semifinals this week. I’m sure that will work out well for me.

JAGUARS over Texans

With that defense and Blake Bortles suddenly being not terrible the past couple weeks, Jacksonville might actually be a contender in the AFC. I feel more concussed than Tom Savage was last week.

SEAHAWKS over Rams

The Rams are a better team from top to bottom. I know this. But I still can’t pick Seattle to give up the NFC West title at home for some reason.

49ERS over Titans

I was all excited to make this an upset pick, but it turns out Vegas was onto the stench coming from Tennessee as well. The 3-10 49ers are favored over the current 5th seed in the AFC. And they should be.

Patriots over STEELERS

Tom Brady and New England can’t look that bad two weeks in a row, and Pittsburgh just gave up 38 points to the freaking Ravens. First team to 50 wins?

Cowboys over RAIDERS

Case Keenum has earned the right to be the starter in Minnesota down the stretch. But a small part of me wishes Teddy Bridgewater would play if only to show that he actually did turn out to be better than Derek Carr.

Falcons over BUCCANEERS

Jameis Winston is so careless with the football that it makes me curious whether he’s that way with other things in his life. I feel like he gets fragile packages from Amazon and tosses them on the floor in the entryway. If a relative handed him a baby, Jameis would probably hold it with one hand while wildly rocking it and getting distracted in conversation. When he empties the dishwasher, does he just chuck the plates back in the cupboard?

Anyway, the Bucs are terrible and Atlanta needs this one, so I’m picking the Falcons.

Last week: 8-8
Season so far: 132-76