I had the honor of speaking to Scott Bantel of SBNation's Cincy Jungle, the premier site for everything Bengals. With the Ravens dropping four of their last six games against the Cincinnati squad, I tried to figure out what the Ravens can do to exact revenge on their rival.
1. The Bengals are going to the playoffs once again. That's familiar enough, but winning in them is another thing. What makes this Bengals squad a team that can win and not just make the playoffs?
The 2011 and 2012 teams were just good enough to get to the playoffs, but not good enough to win. The 2014 was just too decimated by injuries – they were missing their top three receivers (A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert), Vontaze Burfict was out, Rey Maualuga left early and Geno Atkins was not completely recovered from his ACL injury…heck, Greg Little was their number two receiver in last year’s playoff game. The 2013 loss to the Chargers was the one that stung and the game they should have one.
What makes/made this team different, is their balance and the improved play of Andy Dalton. They have a top 10 offense, a top 10 defense, a solid special teams unit and Dalton was playing at an MVP caliber level. We will get into this further in just a moment, but unfortunately, if Dalton cannot make it back for the playoffs, this team may have another short playoff stay.
2. My understanding is that QB Andy Dalton's status for starting in the playoffs is very questionable, even if the Bengals get that coveted first-round bye. What's your confidence in backup A.J. McCarron?
All indications are if the Bengals do not get a bye, Dalton will miss the first playoff game, and as you mentioned, that second game would not be a guarantee either. Even if he is back, a broken thumb on the throwing hand is a significant injury for a quarterback and I think it would be fair to question how effective he would be.
That being said, McCarron has played very well in Dalton’s absence and the coaches and his teammates are very impressed with his preparation and leadership. Since Dalton went down, he has thrown for 672 yards, is completing 67% of his passes and has 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. In his two starts, he has 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions and has looked very comfortable in the offense. More importantly, he has not looked overwhelmed by the situation. As a two-time National Champion at Alabama, he has played in big games and it shows, he looks very comfortable in the offense and has plenty of confidence. I thought his performance in Denver,on Monday night against the number one defense was very impressive. However, we he is still not Andy Dalton – who thought we would say that 12 months ago? Dalton had taken the proverbial "next step" this season, he cut down his turnovers and was in the discussion for MVP (unthinkable at the start of the season). Where Dalton is severely underrated is when it comes to adjustments at the line of scrimmage. He is one of the best quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage and the drop off from him to McCarron is noticeable. With a healthy Dalton, this is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. With McCarron, I think the Bengals can win a game in the playoffs (maybe two) – though I wouldn’t bet on it – but I don’t think they can make a run at the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, Dalton may not get the chance to answer his critics about his ability to win in the playoffs.
3. How is the draft class of 2015 doing so far? In my mind, the Bengals made some picks that I didn't exactly agree with. What evidence is there to refute my opinion?
Believe it or not, the Bengals have quietly become one of the best drafting organizations in the league and have built a team with no glaring holes, and as a result, it has allowed them to draft the best available players even when the player may not play for a year or two – this is exactly what they did with Eifert when they still had Jermaine Gresham. The Bengals were set at offensive tackle in 2015 with Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith at right tackle. As a result, many were surprised, myself included, by the Bengals decision to draft an offensive tackle in the first and second round (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher). However, in hind sight, it was a great organizational move. Whitworth is the oldest starting tackle in the NFL, and Smith, though a solid right tackle, is unlikely to be back in 2016. As a result, the Bengals picked up their starting tackles for the next 5+ years and had the luxury to allow them a year to learn behind two of the best in the league. In five years, I think this draft will be looked back on by most as a great draft. Because Whithworth and Smith have been healthy and playing well, we haven’t seen the two tackles much this year – though Fisher, a former tight end and favorite for the tackle eligible play, will be the fullback on Sundayas a result of a knee injury to the Bengals starting fullback.
Outside of the first two picks, they have received solid contributions from their later picks. Third round pick, tight end Tyler Kroft (Rutgers), has contributed 9 catches, 108 yards and a touchdown in the absence of Eifert. Their other third round pick, linebacker P.J. Dawon (TCU), has been a solid contributor on special teams, and their fourth round pick, cornerback/safety Josh Shaw (USC) has filled in nicely while the Bengals secondary was depleted with injuries. I don’t see any stars emerging from this draft, butin five years, I think draft will have resulted in four or five solid starters, which in my mind, makes it a very good draft.
4. What are the Bengals' plans for the 2016 draft going to be?
The Bengals are a hard team to predict in the draft because they really do subscribe to the "Best Player Available" theory, so their picks really just depend on who has fallen as a result of other teams need picks. Much like prior years, they don’t have any glaring needs so I suspect they will go best player available again. That being said, Reggie Nelson is getting up there in age and is a free agent, so I would think a ball hawking safety would be on their want list. They could also use a big run stuffing tackle or upgrades at the linebacker position.
5. I would like to hear how you think this game plays out. Do the Bengals take this one easily? Or do the Ravens put up another fight and play spoiler yet again?
With a win and a Denver loss, the Bengals can still get a first round bye, and all indications are they will not rest players and will play with hopes of securing the two seed. That being said, if they get up (or down) big, I think players will be pulled. A week ago, I would say the Bengals would take this game easily (even with McCarron), but I was very impressed by the Ravens last week and their upset win over the Steelers I think was great because it will not allow the Bengals to overlook them. I think the Bengals win, but I do not foresee a blowout. I think this will be a relatively boring game to watch – barring an early deficit, the Bengals will go with a more conservative and vanilla offense and hope to win with the ground game. I think the game will stay within 7-10 points all afternoon and will end in that range as well. I will say Bengals, 24, Ravens 17.