By Sam McPherson
Back in the 1980s, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals twice in the Super Bowl by a combined nine points. While the 49ers went on to NFL glory against other teams, the Bengals have never been back to the big game. In fact, Cincinnati hasn’t even won a playoff game since the 1990 postseason, while San Francisco has been in the playoffs a dozen times since then.
This was supposed to be the Bengals’ year, especially after the team started 2015 with an 8-0 record. However, bad fortune has found Cincinnati again, and as the team comes to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday to face the 49ers, it does so without its starting quarterback, its starting tight end and its early-season momentum.
The Bengals are just 2-3 since their 8-0 start, dropping recent games to the Houston Texans, the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Texans lead the AFC South, the Cardinals lead the NFC West, and the Steelers are in control of their own AFC wild-card destiny. The first two losses were by a combined seven points, including one defeat in overtime. The last loss to Pittsburgh was a blowout once Cincinnati lost key offensive players.
One more win clinches a fifth-straight playoff spot for the Bengals, while two more wins clinch the AFC North Division title for Cincinnati. After the 49ers, the Bengals play at Denver and then host Baltimore to finish the season. This game against San Francisco could mean the difference between the division title and a wild-card spot for Cincy.
Bengals on Offense
Usually, Cincinnati sports one of the best offenses in the league, but with starting QB Andy Dalton out for the rest of the season now with a fractured thumb, the Bengals will be going with second-year QB A.J. McCarron against the 49ers. While Cincinnati still has weapons like wide receiver A.J. Green (76 receptions for 1,169 yards and eight touchdowns), losing a seasoned and successful veteran like Dalton only hurts the Bengals’ ability to score points.
Also, the Cincy offense may be without starting tight end Tyler Eifert, who shares the NFL lead with 12 TD receptions. He suffered a concussion last week and may not get through the league protocol in time for Sunday. This means running backs Giovani Bernard (647 yards) and Jeremy Hill (608 yards) will be expected to carry a big load against the weak San Francisco defense. McCarron is unproven, but the former Alabama Crimson Tide QB has potential, completing almost 70 percent of his career NFL throws.
Bengals on Defense
Cincinnati’s defense is second in the NFL in points allowed, giving up just 17.6 points per game. All together, the Bengals are a sound defensive team that can pressure an offense from every angle. Reggie Nelson leads the team with eight interceptions, and Carlos Dunlap leads the team with 10.5 sacks. In Week 13, Cincinnati held the Cleveland Browns to just three points on the road. Meanwhile, the 49ers defense just gave up 24 points to Cleveland on that same field in Week 14.
Bengals Players to Watch
Bernard averages 5.1 yards per carry, and if the Bengals are able to ride their running game against S.F., they will be in good shape. After all, how many yards did the 49ers just give up to the Browns on the ground? Any room the Cincy RBs create will be taken advantage of by Green, one of the best WRs in the league. The 49ers will have to work hard to keep him down in this game, even with a backup QB throwing him the ball.
Defensively, the Bengals have a lot of weapons to shut down the worst offense in the NFL. The 49ers can’t score consistently, and that feeds right into Cincinnati’s defensive strengths. The Bengals’ front four has a combined 27.5 sacks this season through 13 games, so look for them to pressure S.F. QB Blaine Gabbert all game long, forcing him into bad throws that a talented secondary will be salivating over all afternoon.
The 49ers play much better at home, but they’ve still lost to the better teams at home this year: Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona. The average score of these three losses at home was 19-6. San Francisco’s defense will play better at home, as it has all season; but even with a backup QB, Cincinnati has too much talent overall to lose to the 49ers. Look for a 24-10 Bengals win on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.