With the Steelers emphatic win over the Panthers on Thursday night and the Ravens on their bye week the Sunday preview for the AFC North is pretty quiet with just the Bengals and Browns in action today.
Saints at Bengals
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints come to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team that will be without it’s star playmaker, A.J. Green. Green is a huge part of the Bengals offense and it will be interesting to see how Andy Dalton plays. Dalton has a tendency to look to Green in time of need and with Green out this role will fall to Boyd. The problem here is that Boyd has only emerged as a reliable target this season and is much more of a complimentary player.
2017 first round pick John Ross was picked after a blazing 40 yard dash but he has proven brittle to this point in his career and has only seven receptions in 2017, in part due to missing 3 games. With Green’s injury it’s vital Ross finally starts to fulfill his potential. I’d love to see Ross taking the top off the Falcons coverage and running deep routes early and often. Would a few easy sideline catches boost his confidence and ease him into the game?
Another option is Bengals rookie seventh-round draft pick Auden Tate, a crowd favourite in trading camp who is active for his first NFL game.
On the offensive line the Bengals are expected to see the return of their first round pick, center Billy Price. Price returns from the foot injury he suffered in Week 2 against Baltimore and will allow Trey Hopkins to shift to right guard to cover Alex Redmond. With communication key on the offensive line their matchup against the Saints front will bare watching. They will face a Saints team without injure Marcus Davenport which will help. The will open lanes for Giovani Bernard who is expected to be active for the game which should allow impressive second year man Joe Mixon to stay fresher.
Defensively the Saints passing offense runs a direct line from Drew Brees to receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas already has 70 receptions for 880 yards and five touchdowns. Dez Bryant, who was bought in to upgrade the Saints number two receiver, tore his ACL this week in training, so stopping (or more likely limiting) Thomas will be key and I wonder if they have cornerback William Jackson shadow him all day. Getting to Drew Brees will help limit Thomas’ impact. In part because of the season-ending injury suffered by end Carl Lawson, this will be rookie Sam Hubbard’s primary job. Hubbard’s improvement will be key as his playing time increases.
However, as with most great offenses it’s not that easy. If you’re able to stop Thomas Alvin Kamara will destroy you. Kamara has 51 receptions for 427 yards and five touchdowns. Kamara is equally as threatening rushing the ball and has carried 111 times for 490 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Watching Kamara is a joy but will likely terrify Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin whose unit will have to shutdown Kamara without injured Nick Vigil, the Bengals best cover linebacker. Defenders Vontaze Burfict (hip) and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are also out.
Prediction: Saints 40 – Bengals 27
Falcons at Browns
Sunday will see the Browns face a 4-4 Falcons team that is clinging on to it’s narrow post season hopes. Baker Mayfield had one of his better games as a pro last week and will need to continue that play for the Browns to compete in this one. He will be facing a Falcons defense that is among the NFL’s worst – 29th against the pass, the red zone defence and points per game. Getting Duke Johnson involved in the passing game will make things easier as will targeting Jarvis Landry.
The Browns got some good news of their own on the injury front. Tight end David Njoku, who has been dealing with knee and rib injuries, is expected to play today if he doesn’t have a setback in warmups. Njoku is slowly starting to develop as a weapon in his second year in the NFL.
For the Falcons to stand a chance they probably need to win 6 of the next 8 games. The good news for the Falcons is that they are slowly getting healthy. The offense for Atlanta begins with QB Matt Ryan who is completing 70.8 per cent of his passes whilst averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. With the trio of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu on the loose the Browns will need to bring their A game.
It’s a good time, then, for the Browns to see two key defensive backs healthy. Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, who left last week’s game with a hip injury returns to the field. Also returning will be Damarious Randall (groin) and Joe Schobert (Hamstring). That’s a big boost to a team that will be facing the Falcons air attack. For the Browns to stand a chance in this one Myles Garrett and the Browns can pressure Matt Ryan into turning the ball over.
Prediction: Browns 27 – Falcons 33
Jonathan Cumbleton writes about the AFC North for Ninety Nine Yards, covering the Ravens, Bengals, Browns, and Steelers. Johnny is a Philadelphia Eagles fan who has followed the game since 1990. You can follow more of his writing on Twitter @Cumbleton.