Just outside the playoff picture in the AFC, Cincinnati looks to avoid a third straight loss this Sunday and deal St. Louis a fifth consecutive defeat in a row.
The Bengals dropped a game behind the New York Jets for the sixth spot in the conference following last Sunday's heart-breaking 20-19 defeat to the Houston Texans in which they blew a 13-point halftime lead. Cincinnati has lost four of five since a 6-2 start and is now battling for a Wild Card spot after being in competition for a division title for most of the season.
Now three games back of AFC North co-leaders Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Cincinnati wraps its season with a pair of homes games against the surging Arizona Cardinals and 10-3 Ravens. That means a victory over the 2-11 Rams is a must.
"I can't tell you right now," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said of how last Sunday's loss affects his club's playoff chances. "As far as the team goes, they are very disappointed and I'm going to have to pump some air in them. We have to make some corrections and get back on track. Before this game we controlled our own destiny, and now I can't tell you what is going to happen. We have to move forward and see what happens."
Cincinnati led Houston by a 16-3 margin at the half, but watched the Texans storm back behind rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who hit wide receiver Kevin Walter for a six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left to play for the go- ahead points.
It was something the Bengals weren't used to seeing, given that they own five come-from-behind wins this season.
The Rams and head coach Steve Spagnuolo are seeing things get a little hot in St. Louis after Monday night's 30-13 setback in Seattle. The club is tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the worst record in the NFC.
St. Louis' four-game slide is its second-longest of the season, behind only its 0-6 start. The Rams fell to 1-6 on the road with the loss in Seattle.
"Obviously a disappointing loss," Spagnuolo said. "We were looking to play good fundamental football and then find a way to win it at the end. We clearly did not do that."
The Rams got quarterback Sam Bradford back from a high left ankle sprain in that game and although he said he felt good enough to play, the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year did acknowledge the ailment does limit him a bit.
"It's not easy coming through some of the throws, putting torque on the front ankle. I think that's the biggest thing," Bradford said of playing with the injury. "Running and things like that are okay. The plant when you come through is a lot of arm motion."
With pending games against the Steelers and NFC West-champion San Francisco, the Rams are in danger of finishing with three wins or less for the fourth time in five seasons.
Cincinnati holds a 6-5 edge in the all-time set between these teams and halted a string of three straight losses to the Rams with a 19-10 home decision in 2007. The Bengals suffered defeats in the Edward Jones Dome in both 1996 (26-16) and 2003 (27-10) during that three-game series skid and last topped the Rams on the road all the way back on Oct. 7, 1990, a 34-31 overtime triumph in Anaheim when the then-Los Angeles Rams were still based there. Cincinnati has never recorded a victory in St. Louis, having also dropped a 41-27 decision to the Cardinals in the city during 1985 in addition to its two previous setbacks at the Edward Jones Dome.
Lewis owns a 1-1 career record against the Rams, while Spagnuolo has yet to face either Cincinnati or Lewis during his tenure with the organization.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The Bengals seemed to set to run all over the Texans last week, with top back Cedric Benson (883 rushing yards, 5 TD) rushing for 92 yards in the first half, including a 42-yard scamper. However, he ran for minus-one yards in the second half and was denied his fourth 100-yard game of the season. Cincinnati yielded one sack to Houston and is tied for third-fewest in the NFL with 21 sacks allowed. However, it lost right guard Bobbie Williams to a season-ending broken right ankle last week, while tackle Andre Smith is questionable for Sunday's test with an ankle ailment of his own. Quarterback Andy Dalton (2833 passing yards, 18 TD, 12 INT) was limited to 189 yards passing on 16-of-28 throwing by the Texans, while connecting on a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Simpson (38 receptions, 3 TD) without an interception. He did lose a fumble, however. Fellow rookie A.J. Green (55 receptions, 7 TD) was Dalton's top target with five receptions for 59 yards, while tight end Jermaine Gresham (43 receptions, 5 TD) had three catches for 45 yards. Simpson was targeted six times, but only came up with two receptions, and wideout Andre Caldwell (37 receptions, 3 TD) also had two catches.
The Rams come into this game ranked eighth overall versus the pass (208.8 ypg), but are dead last in defending the run. St. Louis is yielding 156.8 yards per game on the ground and watched Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch rack up 115 yards and a score on 23 carries on Monday night. If the Rams are to contain Benson, they'll need defensive tackles Fred Robbins (23 tackles, 1 sack) and Justin Bannan (23 tackles) to take away the middle. Middle linebacker and leading tackler James Laurinaitis (114 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) will also be key in stopping the run. The pass rush isn't as big of a concern and is led by defensive end Chris Long (30 tackles). The Rams are tied for ninth in the NFL with 35 sacks, led by Long's 12, though he is battling an ankle injury. Fellow ends James Hall (44 tackles, 5 sacks) and rookie Robert Quinn (17 tackles, 5 sacks) have also made a habit of getting to the quarterback this year, though it was tackle Gary Gibson (16 tackles, 3 sacks) and end C.J. Ah You who recorded the sacks versus Seattle. Laurinaitis logged 12 tackles on Monday, while linebacker Chris Chamberlain (61 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and safety Darian Stewart (69 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) had eight each. Cornerback Josh Gordy (35 tackles, 1 INT) is battling a hip issue and is questionable, with his backup being rookie Chris Smith. Veteran Rod Hood could also see time alongside starter Justin King (58 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) if Gordy doesn't play.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford (2164 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) is likely to get the start again this weekend despite his high ankle sprain, but the Rams will need to do a better job protecting him. With his mobility limited, Bradford was sacked three times versus the Seahawks, and his club has given up a league-high 46 sacks on the season. Bradford also showed some rust coming off a missed game, completing just 12-of-29 passes for 193 yards with an interception. He looked wide receiver Brandon Lloyd's (56 receptions, 4 TD way 12 times, hooking up with his top target five times for 82 yards. Running back Steven Jackson (895 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 6 TD) also hauled in a 50-yard pass in addition to running for 63 yards and a score for St. Louis' 30th-ranked offense (283.8 ypg). Backup Cadillac Williams (286 rushing yards) also got in some work with eight carries for 49 yards, while receivers Brandon Gibson (35 receptions, 1 TD), Austin Pettis (23 receptions) and Danario Alexander (18 receptions, 1 TD) caught one pass each.
The Bengals come into this game ranked seventh overall in total defense (314.8 ypg) but yielded a season-high 412 yards to the Texans last weekend. Cincinnati did come up with a season high-tying five sacks, however, giving it a total of 36 on the season in which 14 different players have contributed to that number. Six different players were credited with at least half a sack versus the Texans, with corner Kelly Jennings (26 tackles, 1 sack), safety Chris Crocker (48 tackles, 3.5 sacks), linebacker Manny Lawson (42 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and end Michael Johnson (28 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) all getting one takedown each of Yates. Linebacker Thomas Howard (78 tackles, 1 sack) led the team with 12 tackles against Houston, while middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (71 tackles) had a huge game with six tackles and two forced fumbles. Tackle Geno Atkins (37 tackles, 7 sacks) also forced a fumble while getting credited with a half-sack, while safety Reggie Nelson (75 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) had nine tackles. Cincinnati is solid at the corners with Nate Clements (43 tackles, 1 INT) and Adam Jones (15 tackles), though Jones was flagged for a pass interference call that helped set up Houston's game-winning score.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The red zone will be one area to watch this weekend, as the Bengals allowed a pair of touchdowns and a field goal in Houston's four trips inside the 20-yard line while also getting a forced fumble from Maualuga at the goal line. Overall, Cincinnati ranks 29th in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage (62.9), while the Rams rank 30th in offensive touchdowns in the red zone at 38.5 percent.
Both running backs will be key for the offense this Sunday. Benson gets a juicy matchup against a struggling defensive unit, while Jackson will be needed to take the pressure off a hobbled Bradford. If Cincinnati takes Jackson out of the game early, the Rams offense could struggle again.
The Bengals have been good at protecting the quarterback this year, but face a tough Rams pass rush without Bobbie Williams. Mike McGlynn and rookie Clint Boling will both get a chance to step in and fill the void. Boling got the call earlier this year while Williams was serving a four-game suspension, but McGlynn started the fourth game of that ban and replaced Williams last weekend.
The Bengals are now in a dogfight for their playoff lives, giving them extra motivation for this weekend's favored matchup. Their defense will be looking for a bounce-back effort versus the Rams, who don't really have the offense right now to challenge the talented unit. Benson should get plenty of work to take some pressure off of Dalton, while Bradford could be looking up at the Edward Jones Dome roof for a good portion of the game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 23, Rams 13