Two of the leading feel-good stories in the NFL this season put their hearts on the line Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when overall No. 1 picks spanning 15 years meet at Washington's FedEx Field to deliver a winning lift for one of these offenses gurgling with production.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable gives a slight edge to Washington quarterback Alex Smith, the 36-year-old No. 1 pick from 2005 who made his first start in two years last week with an astounding career-high 390 yards.
But The Table is mindful that this year's overall No. 1, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, is still on pace to set the rookie yardage record despite last week's detour in Pittsburgh and has a long track record of bouncing back.
So it is close, as symbolized by what is believed to be the first tie in Bengals.com Media Roundtable history predicted by Jay Morrison of The Athletic's Bengals bureau. NFL columnist Jarrett Bell of USA Today, based in the Washington Football Team' s home market, senses Potomac Fever sweeping the offense after Smith came within a late penalty of rallying them to victory last week and gives it to the hosts.
The Washington Post's Les Carpenter also sees the hosts riding a hot hand and staving off Burrow with a statistically gifted pass rush. But The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon, a Howard University product working on familiar grounds Sunday, believes the Bengals offensive line has graduated into winning a matchup on the road against a group of excellent pass rushers and is the key in a tight Cincinnati victory.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
Alex Smith is playing really well right now and I think if they can protect him early they can get a flow going and score some points and then it's a matter if they can pressure Joe Burrow. They've have had success when they've gotten to the quarterback. Their two wins have come in games they really put on the pressure. If they get some points early and put pressure on Burrow, I can see them winning.
The pressure is a key. The Dallas win was against Andy Dalton and a decimated Dallas line and the other one was in Philadelphia the first week of the season when Carson Wentz wasn't moving very well and his line had fallen apart, too. Even in the games they've been close and lost, at times they've gotten good pressure.
Alex Smith is moving the ball now. It will be his second start. He's a little more comfortable now. That's going to be key. He's turned a lot of unknown guys and raised their level a lot. Surprisingly he can still move pretty well. Not the old Alex. He wears a special brace that the basketball player Michael Porter Jr. wears. Jalen Smith had it too. He's got nerve damage (in his leg), so it will never be right again, but that allows him to actually run. It's been amazing.
THE EDGE: If Washington gets up early, the pass rush becomes the big factor. WASHINGTON, 24-17.
I think Cincinnati has a chance to win the game, but it's going to take a good performance because we've seen how Alex Smith is very capable of putting up points. I'm hesitant to say it's going to be a shootout, but you're going to have to put up some points. The rookie quarterback has been able to get some stuff done. It just seems like the Bengals have played some games they feel like they should have won and this is one you have to circle and say we can go in and win the game.
But it's not going to be easy. The matchup against Washington's defensive front is probably going to determine it. If they can protect Burrow and make some plays then I think that will be real crucial to this.
Then you've got Alex Smith on the other side having another week. What an incredible story for him this season. I watched that game against Detroit last week and when they got into that two-minute offense he got more comfortable as the game went on and they almost won that game.
THE EDGE: It's a good matchup. Not a shootout, but Washington gets just enough. WASHINGTON, 27- 23.
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It's a bad matchup for the Bengals. Obviously they like to throw the ball a lot. They average over 40 attempts a game and Washington has the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. And it's not because of their secondary. It's mostly because of their formidable pass rush with Chase Young and those guys.
The Bengals must be able to protect Joe Burrow better than they have in recent games. Their offensive line has played better and the fact they have left tackle Jonah Williams coming back and probably right tackle Bobby Hart is a major plus for them. But they'll have to be able to stop Montez Sweat and Young and Washington's pass rush to win the game.
I do think the Bengals find a way to score even though they don't have running back Joe Mixon and they do have some advantages in that matchup that goes beyond Washington's front line. Washington's offense leaves a lot to be desired in the bottom half of the league. Quarterback Alex Smith is a feel-good story, but still their offense as a whole isn't that great.
THE EDGE: Joe Burrow gets back on track and they find a way to get just enough points. BENGALS, 23-20.
I like what Joe Burrow has displayed in his ability to bounce back, whether it's the week after a bad performance, the series after a bad performance or the pass after a bad throw. He just has that knack to answer adversity and I feel like we're going to see that against a Washington team that's not very strong. We saw him do it against a pretty good Indianapolis team and there's no reason to think he can't do it against a poor Washington team.
Washington's front four does concern me, but they don't blitz a whole lot and I don't think the Bengals offensive line, as beat up as it was, played that poorly against the Steelers. The Steelers really dialed back the blitz last week. We'll see how Washington attacks them, if they take the Baltimore approach or sit back and take the Pittsburgh approach. I'm starting to hear more confidence in that offensive line, especially with Jonah Williams coming back. We'll see what they do at right tackle.
You wonder about Alex Smith. He's in that Big Ben mode where he never forces anything down the field. Everything is shorter and he lets the receivers make plays after the catch. The Bengals are getting a couple of cornerbacks back and that will help. One concern is the rookie running back, Antonio Gibson, the guy the Bengals coaching staff had at the Senior Bowl, is fifth in the league in broken tackles. The Bengals don't tackle very well and Gibson doesn't have a lot of touches. That's an area of concern. The Bengals played Pittsburgh better against the run than they have in the past, but it's not the same Pittsburgh team. I think Washington can do some damage on the ground against them.
THE EDGE: I might be making Roundtable history predicting a tie. They tied the the last time they played. Their records are almost identical. They're kind of mirror images. The Bengals have already tied one NFC East team this year. It just feels like the perfect prediction for 2020. 24-24.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Pick your storylines.
That battle of overall No. 1 quarterbacks drafted 15 years apart.
The matchup pitting this year's No. 1, Burrow, vs. this year's No. 2, Washington edge rusher Chase Young.
Two young rosters, the Bengals with 24 players with three NFL seasons of experience or less against Washington with 25 such players, both trying to get a foothold in two-win seasons as they push into 2021 making noise in 2020.
Instead, maybe its two obscure stats from last week's loss in Pittsburgh that may help swing it to the Bengals.
The only time Burrow hasn't moved the ball is against elite pass rushers, like last week against the Steelers, ranked one in sacks per pass, and last month against the Ravens, ranked sixth. Now here comes Washington's second-ranked sackers, ranging from Young, to franchise sack leader Ryan Kerrigan to team-leader Montez Sweat with five.
But Washington is ranked 21st against the run and although the Bengals haven't had running back Joe Mixon since Oct. 18 (and won't for at least three more games), their running game hasn't shriveled up and died.
When they went for 139 yards rushing last week (yes, 39 on a fake punt) it was the most yards they've put up on the ground against Pittsburgh in 19 years. And in the last three games they've averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Both starting tackles look to be healthy for the first time since Cleveland on Oct. 25 (a 468-yard effort against the 15h-ranked defense) and 4.0-yard per can also help keep Burrow clean. In their two wins, they've kept the ball 33 and 35 minutes. All eyes are not on just the tackles. Washington's two first-round D-tackles, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, are a challenge to move.
Defensively, the Bengals have to be crossing their fingers and hope they're not walking into an emerging juggernaut. With Alex Smith running things, an offense that is still ranked 28th went off for 464 yards last week against a Detroit defense ranked (27th) similarly with the Bengals (26th). Smith has got targets that are going to test the Bengals' tackling with rookie running back Antonio Gibson third and vet running back J.D. McKissic eighth in the league for yards after contact even though they are 30th in rushing.
And McKissic is going to challenge the Bengals young linebackers with 291 yards receiving out of the backfield, second best in the league.
Throw in wide receiver "Scary Terry," McLaurin at wide receiver with an NFL-best 400 yards after catch and second most 194 yards after contact to go with 87 yards per game and there is plenty to keep the Bengals occupied.
With a career 194 touchdown passes compared to 104 interceptions, Smith isn't going to give you games. He's a crafty winner with 94 of them and he's 35 games over .500. The amazing thing is in his long career he has yet to throw a TD or an interception against the Bengals and has never faced them on the road. He has split his two starts against them, a win for the Niners and loss for the Chiefs.
He's the kind of guy you can't let get into a rhythm with any kind of a running game. Last week the Bengals held the Steelers to 44 yards rushing, their third fewest ever against Pittsburgh.
In three of the last four games the Bengals haven't allowed more than 82 yards on the ground and in that one game the Bengals gave Tennessee 218 yards in a game they won.
Washington isn't the Titans on the ground or even the Steelers. All the talk is about the Washington front, but if the Bengals can keep being stingy on the run and if they can get that lift from the return of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, all that may go a long way in deciding this one rather the obvious stories.