The Cincinnati Bengals have overcome some early-season hardships to remain in the thick of the playoff picture.
The San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, are in a period of adversity they haven’t experienced in quite some time.
When two teams that have reached the championship game of their respective conference in each of the last two seasons get together Sunday in San Francisco (on CBS), one will be looking to sustain its rediscovered momentum as the other tries to restore its usually successful form.
The Bengals head to Levi’s Stadium more relaxed and refreshed courtesy of a bye week and a two-game winning streak that’s helped put a 1-3 start in the rearview mirror. There’s still significant pressure on the two-time defending AFC North champions, however, as our season projection model indicates they’re still facing an uphill climb to return to the playoffs as the division’s lone team without a winning record at the moment.
Cincinnati seems to be catching the 49ers, the team our model still gives the best chance of any to win the Super Bowl, at the right time, however. The NFC West leaders are mired in a two-game slide since crushing the Dallas Cowboys 42-10 on Oct. 8. They’ve been dealing with a rash of key injuries that now includes starting quarterback Brock Purdy, whose status for Sunday’s game is suddenly in question after he entered concussion protocol this week.
The news of Purdy’s health has predictability caused a major wagering shift in a game the 49ers opened as 6.0-point favorites. They now hold a point-spread advantage anywhere from 3.0-3.5 points at last check, with sportsbooks’ over/under also dipping from 45.5 total points to 43.5.
San Francisco’s list of potential absentees, which also includes playmaking wide receiver Deebo Samuel and All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, may also even the scales in a matchup that would otherwise appear rather lopsided. The 49ers come in at No. 2 in our EVE rankings (efficiency vs. expected) behind the Miami Dolphins, while the Bengals are 31st of 32 teams in that metric.
Our supercomputer still views the 49ers as the best bets this week, and the public’s panic over the prospect of Sam Darnold being under center could very well work to the advantage of those still backing San Francisco, as well as those with an eye on the over.
CIN Key: Protect Joe Burrow
Cincinnati’s two straight wins still haven’t completely eliminated the season-long issues for an offense that ranks dead-last in EVE and has displayed little balance, as Joe Mixon and the underdog Bengals have totaled the second-fewest rushing yards in the league and have the third-highest ratio of pass plays to total plays at 67.1%.
The Bengals also have an explosion problem and a bit of a diversity problem as well. Their average of 4.6 yards per pass play is the lowest of any team and they’ve generated a meager five receptions of 25 or more yards through six games. And Cincinnati’s offense has been excessively dependent on the contributions of star wideout Ja’Marr Chase, who owns the highest percentage of his team’s overall receiving yards of any player this season.
HIGHEST PCT. OF TEAM’S TOTAL RECEIVING YARDS
- Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals (45.2)
- A.J. Brown, Philadelphia Eagles (44.4)
- DJ Moore, Chicago Bears (44.0)
- Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins (41.8)
- Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams (39.4)
One thing the Bengals have done well is pass block, as their pressure rate allowed of 27.6% is the lowest in the league. There’s also a big contributing factor to that low number, though, as Joe Burrow has the quickest release time (2.30 seconds) of any quarterback who has made at least one start.
There’s a reason for that as well, as the Bengals have rarely pushed the ball downfield through the air as Burrow continues to manage a training-camp calf injury that’s rendered his deep ball practically obsolete. The NFL’s highest-paid player has completed just 2-of-14 attempts of 21-plus air yards while directing an offense that also sports the league’s lowest average depth of target at 6.4 yards.
The Bengals have been making that dink-and-dunk philosophy work to an extent lately. Burrow has a well-thrown rate of 82.2% over his last three games after registering a 74.3 percentage through the first three, and Cincinnati receivers’ open rate of 83.2% since NFL Week 4 is the fifth best in the league during that stretch.
Chase has been dynamite despite being the obvious focal point of opposing defenses, producing an excellent 76.8 burn rate over a four-game stretch in which he’s racked up 478 yards and four touchdowns while hauling in 40 passes on a whopping 56 targets. And steady slot man Tyler Boyd has rebounded from a slow start in which his burn rate was a woeful 44.4% through four games. He’s upped that mark to 71.4% over the last two with an open percentage of 92.9 during that span.
San Francisco is one of only six teams with a pressure rate above 40% for the season, but there have been two occasions where its normally formidable pass rush has been spotty. One occurred last week, when the 49ers managed just a 28.3% pressure rate at Minnesota and were promptly shredded for 378 yards and two touchdowns by Kirk Cousins in a 22-17 defeat to a Minnesota Vikings team without all-world wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
The Niners also struggled to get to the quarterback against Arizona in Week 4, allowing journeyman Joshua Dobbs to put up 265 passing yards and two touchdowns on a crisp 28-of-41 passing as the talent-deficient Arizona Cardinals hung around for three quarters before eventually losing 35-16. San Francisco’s pressure rate that day came in at 25.5%.
SF Key: Get CMC Going Again
San Francisco’s first losing streak in a full calendar year has coincided with a decline in play from Purdy, who followed up a dismal 12-of-27, 125-yard passing performance against a rugged Cleveland Browns defense in Week 6 by recording the first two-interception game of his young career Monday night against the Vikings.
In addition to the turnovers, the 49ers didn’t run the ball with their usual authority in either outing, particularly last week when they were held to a season-low 65 yards on 22 attempts.
San Francisco’s offense operates at its highest level when Christian McCaffrey is ripping off long runs on a regular basis and consistently moves the chains with his enviable combo of power and speed. And as the chart below notes, that hasn’t at all been the case over the last three weeks.
McCaffrey is also another member of San Francisco’s walking wounded, as he’s been playing through a reported slight oblique tear that seems to have taken some juice out of his legs.
Darnold did play well in six starts for the Carolina Panthers last season, winning four of those games and generating strong numbers in both well-thrown percentage (83.2) and pickable pass percentage (2.52).
He also had a lot of help in those successful efforts. The Panthers rushed for 171 yards or more in all four of Darnold’s winning starts, including a massive 320-yard effort against the Detroit Lions on Christmas Eve.
Whoever ends up under center Sunday, it’s important he’s complimented with an effective running game – namely an in-form McCaffrey – for the 49ers to have their best chance in a matchup in which they seem likely to be without one of their top two receivers and their premier left tackle. Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle could be nice safety nets as well for Purdy or Darnold.
But the Bengals may just be the proper opponent to get McCaffrey right again with a defense that ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (142.3) and rushing yards allowed per play (5.1). They’ve also surrendered the highest percentage of big-play runs (10 yards or more) at 15.9% and are 27th overall in stuff percentage (tackles of a rusher for negative yards).
Cincinnati is coming off its best showing of the season in defending the run, however, as it held the Seattle Seahawks to 87 yards on the ground and 3.5 yards per carry in a 17-13 win in Week 6.
Considering the Bengals’ ongoing limitations on the other side of the ball, it may take another stout defensive display for Cincinnati to extend its streak – regardless of who will and won’t be in a 49ers uniform this week.