It wasn't pretty, but the Cincinnati Bengals kept their playoff chances alive by avoiding a fifth loss in six games last weekend.
While Arizona's chances at a postseason spot are much slimmer, the Cardinals' longest winning streak since 1999 has them still mathematically in the hunt as well.
The Bengals seek to hold their claim on the AFC's final playoff spot this Saturday against the visiting Cardinals, who try to win five in a row for the first time in over 34 years.
Once challengers for the AFC North title, the upstart Bengals eliminated themselves from a chance at first place in the division thanks to a 1-4 span that included consecutive setbacks to Pittsburgh and Houston at the start of December. Cincinnati, though, got its playoff hopes back on track with a 20-13 win over hosting St. Louis last weekend, moving into a tie with the Jets for the conference's second playoff spot.
Both clubs are 8-6 after the Jets lost to the Eagles last Sunday, but New York appears to have the inside track with regards to the tiebreakers. The Jets host the Giants this weekend before wrapping up their season at Miami, while Cincinnati hosts Baltimore in Week 17.
The Bengals did their part on Sunday, shaking off a rough first half to notch a 20-13 win over the Rams. A big punt return by Brandon Tate helped set up Cincinnati's go-ahead score as it got rushing touchdowns from Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott in the second half.
"It was big in that regard (the playoffs)," said rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. "We knew we had to come out and get a win. We started a little slow, but won in the end and that's all that matters. It's one step and we've just got to take care of our business."
The Bengals also have three teams at 7-7 hot on their heels and must contend with a Cardinals team that is 6-1 since a six-game slide from Sept. 18-Oct. 30. Arizona got back to .500 on Sunday with a 20-17 overtime win against the Cleveland Browns.
Special teams also helped Arizona as Patrick Peterson's return in overtime helped set up Jay Feely's 22-yard field goal.
"Obviously, it was a big win for us. We haven't won four games in a row since I've been here so that's a pretty significant deal. To get back to .500 was a big deal for us," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who passed Don Coryell for the most wins in franchise history including the playoffs with 43 after his club rallied from a 17-7 deficit.
It was yet another comeback for Arizona, which has overcome second-half deficits in all seven of its wins this year, one shy of the NFL's modern-era record. Its sixth fourth-quarter comeback leaves it one shy of the league record set by the Colts in 2009.
The Cardinals have played in a league-leading 11 games this season decided by seven points or fewer, but will need their biggest comeback this season to make the playoffs. In order to stay alive for a wild card spot heading into the final week, Arizona must win and see either Atlanta or Detroit lose this weekend.
Winning five in a row for the first time since Oct. 16-Nov. 20, 1977 would also give the Cardinals their first four-win month since October of 1984.
Cincinnati holds a 5-4 edge in the all-time series between these teams, but the Cardinals have closed the gap by taking the last two matchups in the set. One of those wins took place at Paul Brown Stadium in 2007, a 35-27 Arizona victory, and the Cardinals also prevailed by a 17-14 count in a home date with the Bengals back in 2003. Cincinnati last bested the Cardinals on Dec. 3, 2000, a 24-13 triumph in the Queen City, and is 5-1 lifetime against Arizona as the host.
Marvin Lewis has lost both his two career meetings with the Cardinals during his tenure as the Bengals' head coach, while Whisenhunt won his only previous encounter with both Cincinnati and Lewis with that 2007 result. The two men worked together on the staff of the Baltimore Ravens for two seasons from 1997-98, with Lewis then a defensive coordinator and Whisenhunt a tight ends coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona's 363 yards of offense upped its season average to 320.6 per game, ranked 22nd in the NFL, while Skelton (1,345 passing yards, 8 TD, 10 INT) improved to 4-1 as a starter this year. Still, Kolb (1,955 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) is expected to return as the starter when healthy. Skelton unleashed plenty of pass attempts versus the Browns, going 28-of-46 with a touchdown and interception while getting sacked four times. He targeted receivers Larry Fitzgerald (65 receptions, 7 TD) and Early Doucet (51 receptions, 5 TD) 17 times, but only hooked up with each on three occasions. With coverage tight on the two, receiver Andre Roberts (41 receptions, 2 TD) made six catches for 60 yards and scored a touchdown for a second game in a row. Tight end Todd Heap (20 receptions), meanwhile, led the team with seven catches for 69 yards, making his first grabs since he suffered a hamstring injury back on Oct. 2. Running back Beanie Wells (994 rushing yards, 10 TD) was held to just 51 yards rushing, but did score. A touchdown this weekend would tie him for the third-highest total in franchise history, matching MacArthur Lane's 11 in 1970. Wells is also six yards shy of reaching 1,000 for the first time in his career and would be the first Cardinals back to hit the mark since Edgerrin James in 2007.
Arizona ranks second-to-last in the NFL with 47 sacks allowed, which could be an issue this weekend against Cincinnati's sixth-ranked defense (314.1 YPG). The Bengals have gotten sacks from 15 different players this year and rank tied for fourth with 39 on the season. Cincinnati added three sacks to that total versus the Rams, getting one each from corner Nate Clements (50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), defensive tackle Geno Atkins (41 tackles, 8 sacks) and tackle Jonathan Fanene (19 tackles, 4 sacks). Atkins' sack total leads all NFL interior lineman and is tied for the most in Bengals single-season history by a defensive lineman, matching Dan Wilkinson's record. The 13 points allowed by Cincinnati matched the lowest total of the season and the defensive effort was led by linebacker Thomas Howard's (88 tackles, 1 sack) 10 tackles. Clements added seven stops and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (76 tackles) was one of three defenders with five tackles. Free safety Reggie Nelson (76 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) has also been a tackle machine on the season, while ends Michael Johnson (33 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) and Frostee Rucker (38 tackles, 4 sacks) have contributed to the pass rush.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Though Cincinnati ranks just 23rd in total offense (320.1 YPG) and is scoring just over 20 points a game on average, the future looks bright with Dalton (3,012 passing yards, 18 TD, 13 INT) under center throwing passes to fellow rookie A.J. Green (61 receptions, 7 TD). Dalton became just the fifth passer in NFL history to reach 3,000 yards as a rookie with 179 last weekend, though his string of 10 straight games with a touchdown pass came to an end. Green led the club with six receptions and 115 yards and returned to action after suffering a shoulder injury late in the first half. He is expected to play this weekend, coming in four yards and five receptions shy of Chris Collinsworth's 1981 Bengals rookie records of 65 receptions and 1,009 yards. Jerome Simpson (40 receptions, 3 TD) should get the start beside him, though Andre Caldwell (37 receptions, 3 TD) may not play due to a nagging abdomen/groin issue. He would be replaced by Andrew Hawkins (19 receptions) and Ryan Whalen, both rookies, in the slot. Benson (959 rushing yards, 6 TD) had a game-high 76 yards versus the Rams and Scott (318 rushing yards, 2 TD) added 20 on seven carries. Tackle Andre Smith (ankle) and fullback Brian Leonard (knee) are among those who could return to action this weekend.
Arizona's defense has allowed eight defensive touchdowns over its last seven games, lowering its average to 21.8 points yielded per game. Linebacker O'Brien Schofield (33 tackles, 4.5 sacks) had a clutch game with two sacks and a forced fumble that was recovered by defensive end Calais Campbell (64 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and set up a score. Safety Adrian Wilson (55 tackles, 1 INT) led the team with eight tackles and linebacker Paris Lenon (84 tackles, 3 sacks) added seven stops. Cornerback Richard Marshall (67 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and linebacker Daryl Washington (84 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) added six each and safety Kerry Rhodes (29 tackles, 2 sacks) had five tackles in his first game since Oct. 9 due to a broken foot. He played in nickel situations, but could start in this game alongside Wilson. Rhodes will try to boost a secondary that has nine interceptions as a unit and includes the exciting rookie Peterson (59 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT). The Cardinals' linebackers can all get to the quarterback, including rookie Sam Acho (35 tackles, 5 sacks) from the right outside spot.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It should be a battle of rookies this weekend with Peterson set to try and shut down the explosive Green. The task is a tough one for the Arizona corner given Green's ability to out leap nearly anyone on the field of the same mold as Fitzgerald. Peterson's main impact could come in the return game as he is 21 punt return yards shy of breaking Louis Lipps' 1984 rookie record of 656.
The Bengals have their own skilled returner in Tate, whose 71 punt return yards last week helped him snap Quan Cosby's 2009 team record of 474. Tate has 496 on the season, ranking only behind Peterson and Houston's Jacoby Jones.
With so much on the line, Cincinnati will need to keep its composure on its home field. Last weekend versus the Rams, the Bengals were flagged a season- high 11 times for 101 yards.
Two unlikely playoff contenders get a chance to effectively end the season of the other in this big showdown. Arizona has been the hotter of the two as of late and is winning with a backup in Skelton. The Cards QB does have a tendency to turn the ball over and could face a lot of pressure in this game. Both Green and Fitzgerald are two of the top playmaking receivers and the clubs are also fairly equal on the ground. That leaves Cincinnati's solid defense as the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 23, Cardinals 16