Bet you didn’t know the Super Bowl was in Cincinnati this year. What, it isn’t? Well, don’t tell the Bengals. They’re treating Sunday’s matchup with the Packers as their Super Bowl, proof of their arrival as an upper-tier AFC team. Tight end CJ Ozumah on Thursday, when asked what a win on Sunday would mean: “It’s the message that we’re here. This is another huge opportunity for us.”
The Pack is in for another stiff road test in a tough environment, in front of a long suffering fanbase that feels like maybe, just maybe they might actually mean it when they chant their annoying “Who Dey” chant. A win over the Pack would lift them to 4-1 in the brutally tough AFC North. But pretty much everyone who doesn’t love Skyline Chili still understands that they’re just the third best team in their division right now.
I’m worried about this one. Historically, Cincinnati has the Pack’s number: they’ve won three of the last four matchups. They’re more rested, coming off a Thursday night game and their offense, even without Joe Mixon, will be a big test for the banged up Packers defense. Joe Burrow and his aerial show won’t have to face Jaire Alexander, whose shoulder injury has had all of Packer Nation holding its breath all week. Seems like either he’ll be back in a week or two, or will need surgery and be lost for the season. Let’s not even contemplate that scenario right now.
That injury put the Pack in the middle of the Stephon Gilmore sweepstakes on Wednesday, at least for a few hours. When the two were linked in several reports, with news of his pending release from the Patriots, it seemed to help engineer a trade, meaning the new team would be responsible for his salary–that knocked out the Pack, who didn’t have the cap space. We could dream for a little while, but then after the trade was announced, the Pack swiped veteran journeyman Rasul Douglas off the Cardinals practice squad.
The silver lining came later in the day when the Pack signed Jaylon Smith, cut earlier in the day by the Cowboys. Green Bay was his destination of choice, thanks to his relationship with Matt LaFleur at Notre Dame. It’s a low risk, high reward signing, just the kind the Pack loves. I like it too; De’Vondre Campbell has been a revelation at inside linebacker and the Packers could pair him with Smith, to provide the most athletic duo at that spot that they’ve had in years. Or, they could try him on the outside as a pass rusher, where the team could really use some more juice, with Za’Darius Smith sidelined indefinitely, if not for the season. Either way, it can’t hurt to see if a change of environment could bring back the 2018 and 2019 versions of Smith.
But neither of those additions will have any impact on Sunday’s game. Losing Mixon removes a key weapon on the offense. But their trio of rookie Jamarr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins (likely back from a shoulder injury) will be a big test for the Pack’s secondary. Getting Burrow uncomfortable in the pocket is mandatory, because he likes to sit back and throw the ball downfield, unlike the QBs the Packers have faced lately.
I imagine Stokes will be tasked with resuming his relationship with the speedy Chase from their SEC days. Hopefully Kevin King will return from his concussion to challenge Higgins (yes, I said hopefully. Believe it or not, there’s a big drop off from him to the next corner on the depth chart). Chandon Sullivan and/or Darnell Savage will have to deal with Boyd, who always seems to make the big third down and red zone receptions.
The good news is the Pack’s offense should be able to match them up and down the field, presuming the noise isn’t an issue for the young offensive line. Josh Myers is dealing with a finger injury which shouldn’t keep him out of the game, but is less than ideal for a center. Yes, the Bengals are ranked sixth in the league on defense right now, but they’ve faced the toothless Bears, Steelers and Jaguars the last three weeks.
The improvement comes up front, where they did a complete rebuild, led buy former Saints star Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard on the outside and former Brown Larry Ogunjobi and ’20 prized free agent DJ Reader on the inside. The defense has 11 sacks already, after totaling just 17 all last season and is ranked ninth against the run.
But given time, Rodgers should find open receivers. The Bengals’ starting corners are banged up and not very good even when they’re healthy. Former Viking Trae Waynes popped up on the injury report Thursday with a hamstring, after making his season debut last week. Fellow starter Chidobe Awuzie is also questionable. After them, it’s Eli Apple and Mike Hilton. Rodgers should feast. With no MVS and a lot of attention given to Davante Adams, there will be more opportunities for Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan. And we need to see that running game cook like it did against the Steelers.
Not gonna deny I have a bad feeling about this one. Can the Pack match the Bengals’ intensity? This game means a lot more to them than it does to the Pack, as weird as that sounds. They have an opportunity to get the league’s attention by knocking off the Pack; they come in healthier and with extra rest and they’re very accustomed to 1pm (local time) starts. This will be the Pack’s first early kickoff this season. Not a big deal, but an odd quirk of the Green Bay schedule.
The Pack needs to have balance offensively, put heat on Burrow and protect the ball as they have since the opener. While I won’t be surprised if they spring the upset, I’ll trust Rodgers (and maybe Crosby) to find a way to make the winning play late.
Packers 30 Bengals 28