NFL Preview - Minnesota (4-9-1) at Cincinnati (9-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's not time to panic in Cincinnati but it is time to check the rear-view mirror.
The Bengals enter Week 16 in the driver's seat of the AFC North as they get ready to face the Minnesota Vikings but another slip-up could have them walking down a path which doesn't include a postseason berth.
Cincinnati is coming off a 30-20 setback in Pittsburgh last Sunday and now leads the Baltimore Ravens by just one game in the division with a Week 17 matchup between the two rivals looming. Because the Ravens already beat the Bengals in Baltimore earlier in the season the reigning Super Bowl champions now control their own destiny in the division.
The Bengals, however, can still clinch the North by beating the Vikings this week coupled with a Ravens loss to New England. Meanwhile, Cincy can clinch at least a wild card berth by winning and getting a setback from Miami, which is at Buffalo. Lose the final two and the folks in the Queen City could be talking about an epic collapse for years.
Andy Dalton was 25-for-44 passing for 230 yards and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh last week, while Marvin Jones caught five passes for 48 yards and a score and Tyler Eifert hauled in three balls for 33 yards and a touchdown for the Bengals.
"We've got to go play and win football games," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We didn't win one. So we've got to win the next two. If we take care of that and take care of ourselves, that's all we have to worry about."
Minnesota is looking to play spoiler for the second straight week. The Vikings were without running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart a week ago, but little-used reserve Matt Asiata ran for three touchdowns in a stunning 48-30 victory over the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
Matt Cassel completed 26-of-35 passes for 382 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for the Vikings, who put the brakes on Philadelphia's five-game winning streak.
Peterson (foot) and Gerhart (hamstring) were inactive for Minnesota, which bounced back from a 29-26 last-second loss to the Ravens the week prior. Greg Jennings hauled in 11 Cassel passes, a career-high, for 163 yards and a touchdown.
The Vikings scored a season-high 48 points against an Eagles team that allowed more than 21 points for the first time in 10 games.
The Vikings lead their all-time series with the Bengals by a slim 6-5 margin but they are 1-5 in Cincy.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Cincinnati has certainly taken care of business at home, where it's 6-0 and averages 33.2 points per game versus 19.4 points on the road.
The Bengals have scored at least 41 in three consecutive games as the host, something that bodes well against the Vikings' porous defense, which allows 406.5 yards per game, 88 more per contest than the Bengals stout D, which surrenders 318.4.
Minnesota is also the only NFL team which hasn't won as the visitor in 2013 and will be trying to avoid going winless away from the Gopher State for the first time since 2001.
"We are going to emphasize (getting a road win)," said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who was once Lewis' defensive coordinator in Cincinnati from 2003-04. "We want to win this final road game. It's important. It's our next game on our schedule and we are going to emphasize it for sure."
Lewis fired Frazier after the Bengals finished 19th in total defense and 21st in scoring defense in 2004. Frazier, though, has no ill-feeling toward his old mentor.
"I have a lot of respect for Marvin," the Vikings coach said. "That entire Bengals organization, the Browns (owners), they were terrific to me during my time there. Marvin and I see each other in the offseason. We have a good relationship. I'm always thankful for every place I've ever been in my career. Wherever I've been it's always been a benefit, so I'm thankful for my time in Cincinnati."
Frazier is nothing if not classy so you know he wasn't going to take a shot at Lewis or the Bengals but this one will mean a lot to him because he is on the hot seat again after a bad season in Minnesota, which has been marred by Frazier's indecision at the quarterback position.
A quicker move from the disappointing Christian Ponder to the veteran Cassel, who has thrown for 890 yards with five TDs and two INTs over the last three games probably would have made the Vikings very competitive in what has turned out to be a worse than expected NFC North.
Peterson and Gerhart are also both expected back in the lineup for this one, making things far dicier for the Bengals.
That said, Dalton and many of his teammates have proven to be far different players at Paul Brown Stadium.
"There's no panic," Dalton said. "There's no worry about anything. We're not frantic. We still have two games at home and have everything to accomplish, so we've got to take care of our business."
With Cassel under center the Vikings are much more formidable and could play spoiler again but they generally find a way to lose on the road. Minnesota is 0-6-1 away from Mall of America Field, including last-minute losses to Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore.
Conversely Cincinnati is trying to finish off a perfect slate at home for the first time since 1988 by winning its final two contests.
Even if the Vikings keep it close you have to figure they will find a way to blow it in the end.
"We don't use that word spoiler in our conversation," Frazier said. "We're trying our very best to work as hard as we can to get a win for our team and it's nothing to do with the impact it would have on any other team."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 31, Vikings 23
12/19 16:29:04 ET