Bengals eager for primetime opportunity vs. AFC South-leading Jags

Credit: Michael Conroy

Credit: Michael Conroy

The Cincinnati Bengals’ game at Jacksonville this year was supposed to be a big matchup between two contenders in the AFC, a rematch of the first meeting between Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence in 2021 when Jacksonville was winless and Cincinnati was just beginning its turnaround.

Now, only one of those No. 1 overall draft picks will be on the field for the Monday Night Football matchup in Jacksonville and a lot of the hype is gone, but the Bengals are using the national stage as motivation — a chance to bounce back from adversity while Burrow watches from the sideline with a surgically repaired ligament in his right wrist.

Jacksonville (8-3) enters as the AFC South’s top team, and is third in the conference standings. Cincinnati (5-6) is trying to put an end to a three-game skid that has the two-time defending AFC North champions last in the division and 11th in the AFC.

“Find a way one week at a time,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “What better opportunity than primetime Monday night to maybe change a narrative that’s occurred the last couple weeks because we haven’t been on winning side of things. What better opportunity to get ourselves back into it by finding a way to win on primetime with our backs against the wall a bit. Our guys take great pride in that, and you’ll see their best this week.”

Cincinnati beat the Jaguars 24-21 on a walk-off field goal by Evan McPherson when the teams met on Thursday Night Football in Week 4 of the 2021 season, and the Bengals went on to make their Super Bowl run that season while Jacksonville finished 3-14. The Jaguars have gradually turned things around the past two seasons.

While the Bengals are desperate for a chance to keep playing “meaningful football,” as Taylor put it, the Jaguars are humming along with seven wins in their last eight games following a 1-2 start that included back-to-back losses to Kansas City and Houston.

Jacksonville last week avenged that loss to the Texans, beating them 24-21 on the road. The lone loss in the last eight games came against San Francisco on Nov. 12, but the Jags have won two straight since then.

Lawrence ranks 10th in the NFL with 2,746 yards passing and has 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he’s tied for second with seven passes of 40 yards or more. Jacksonville ranks 12th in scoring offense with 23.1 points per game and 13th in net offense with 344.2 yards per game, but the Jaguars lost left tackle Cam Robinson to a knee injury Sunday, and he was placed on injured reserve Monday.

Jacksonville has three players with 500 yards receiving or more, led by Christian Kirk’s 761 yards and three touchdowns on 56 catches. Calvin Ridley adds 663 yards and five touchdowns on 47 receptions, and tight end Evan Engram has a team-high 64 catches for 524 yards but no scores.

Running back Travis Etienne could test the Cincinnati run defense, which has struggled most of the season, but the Jaguars don’t really utilize any other running backs. Etienne is among the top 7 rushers in the NFL right now, recording 726 yards and seven touchdowns on 194 carries.

Jake Browning, set for his second NFL start, will be trying to lead the Bengals to their first win since Nov. 5 against Buffalo, but the Jaguars pose another challenge as Cincinnati seeks to get a more effective running game going. They allow just 87.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks fourth fewest in the league.

The Bengals will look to take advantage of a passing defense that has been prone to giving up yardage, as opponents average 255.0 passing yards per game against the Jaguars. Safety Andre Cisco and cornerback Darious Williams both can cause problems, owning three interceptions, but the secondary has been inconsistent overall, and cornerback Tyson Campbell has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury.

For the Bengals, Tee Higgins’ status is still in question as he works back from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him the past three games.

Jacksonville has a sturdy defensive line but a stronger cast of linebackers, including Josh Allen, who leads the pass rush with 12.0 sacks, Travon Walker (4.5 sacks) and Foyesade Oluokun (three fumble recoveries, seven tackles for loss, 119 tackles).

Taylor said the Bengals will need to be stronger in the trenches to have a better chance of winning games in December, but Jacksonville won’t make that easy.

“It’s something we’ve got to continue to improve on,” Taylor said. “I think looking at the recent game that’s certainly something that’s got to change as we go forward here in December, which is the time of year where injuries pile up for a lot of different teams and the weather doesn’t get better, so you’ve got to rely on those two areas and we have to be stronger there.”


Bengals at Jaguars, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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