The Cincinnati Bengals (8-1) tore through their first eight opponents and won by nearly 10 points a game for the best start in franchise history, all while visions of Super Bowl contention danced in the heads of long-suffering but loyal fans.
Now the Bengals and quarterback Andy Dalton attempt to regain the momentum that catapulted them near the peak of the AFC against a streaking and tough Arizona Cardinals (7-2) squad in Week 11’s “Sunday Night Football” matchup at U of Phoenix Stadium.
Set to appear in a primetime game for the second straight week while trying to maintain the No. 2 spot in the loaded AFC playoff race, Cincinnati received its first helping of defeat this season when it fell to Houston 10-6 at home as Dalton struggled for 197 passing yards and one interception and failed to throw a single touchdown in a game for the first time this season.
The Bengals running game also failed to produce against a Texans defense that has largely underachieved, gaining only 74 total yards on the ground with Giovani Bernard leading the way with 36.
Cincinnati’s now slipped to No. 13 overall in rushing, but the focus of the offense during its unprecedented start was and still is Dalton. Even though the Texans, who’ve beaten him twice in the postseason already, once again got the better of Dalton he’s still played like one of the NFL’s most elite passers throughout the season.
He’s presently ninth with 2,423 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, eighth with a 66.2 completion percentage, and only three other are quarterbacks boast a passer rating better than his 104.6. Dalton’s also looked sharp both on the road and at home, splitting his touchdown total equally no matter the venue.
It’s also telling that with Dalton under center the Bengals haven’t lost back-to-back games since 2013, and both of those games went to overtime and were decided by two and three points.
Dalton and Cincinnati’s faithful can also rely on a defense that’s played very well despite the most recent loss. The Bengals are first in the NFL with only 16.9 points allowed per game, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins lead the sixth best pass rush with 14.5 of the team’s 26 sacks.
But the Bengals will have to meet their former quarterback of the future Carson Palmer and a Cardinals squad riding a three-game winning streak and also in pursuit of the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
Arizona sits two back of undefeated Carolina for the conference lead, but own the league’s highest-scoring offense with 33.6 points per contest and Palmer a threat to fire-off nearly 300 yards a game.
Two of Palmer’s three touchdowns came in a huge 22-point second quarter for Arizona as it toppled two-time defending conference champion Seattle for a 39-32 victory and a three-game lead in the NFC West.
But Arizona’s also opened up the running game this year, ranking No. 31 last year with less than 82 yards per game compared to this season’s No. 8 unit bearing down for 123.9 yards. Veteran running back Chris Johnson, who signed with the Cardinals in the middle of training camp, is putting up 4.4 yards per carry and ranks second in the league with 734 total yards.
The Cardinals have seemingly struck a solid balance between Johnson’s every-down play and third-year back Andre Ellington’s breakaway abilities. Seattle rallied to take a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but after Palmer’s 14-yard strike to tight end Jermaine Gresham, Ellington broke out a 48-yard touchdown scamper.
Like the Bengals, Arizona’s also put together one of the league’s steadiest defenses. Ranking fifth in the league with 18 total takeaways and No. 3 overall, the Cardinals only allowed Seattle to score 30 or more points so far this season and are tied for 11th with 20.6 points let up per game.
Betting Odds: The line opened at Arizona -2.5 but has moved to Arizona -5
Over/Under: 48 points
Prediction: Arizona over Cincinnati, 34-24