The Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) enter Week 15 a little worse for the wear following last week’s home loss to Pittsburgh. They will be without two of their biggest offensive weapons in quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Tyler Eifert. Despite those losses, Marvin Lewis’ Bengals will look to get back on track, making the long journey west to face San Francisco. A victory would solidify the Bengals' fifth consecutive playoff berth. More importantly, Cincinnati can clinch the AFC North title with a win, coupled with a Steelers loss.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers (4-9) are coming off of an embarrassing loss on the road to Cleveland. In spite of a tough 2015 overall, San Francisco has played fairly well in games at Levi’s Stadium this season. They have allowed the fewest points in the NFL at home (95 points in six games), compiling a home record of 3-3. While the 49ers no longer have postseason aspirations, pride is still on the line. San Francisco also has the potential to play the role of spoiler. A 49ers win over the Bengals could shake up the AFC playoff picture in a big way.
This will be the 15th all-time meeting between the Bengals and 49ers, dating back to 1974. It will be the first-ever meeting at Levi’s Stadium. San Francisco holds a commanding 11-3 lead in the all-time series. The two teams last met in 2007 with the 49ers winning by a score of 20-13.
Cincinnati at San Francisco
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Cincinnati - 5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. AJ McCarron’s Debut as a Starting QB
There is no question that the Bengals would prefer to enter this matchup with Andy Dalton under center, but a solid supporting cast will go a long way towards helping AJ McCarron in his NFL debut as a starting signal-caller. Despite missing big-play tight end, Tyler Eifert, McCarron still has the ultimate weapon in A.J. Green. An outstanding Bengal offensive line should provide McCarron with adequate time, and a great complementary run game should help open passing lanes.
The matchup itself bodes fairly well too. San Francisco is ranked 28th in the NFL in pass defense. The 49ers also have just 22 sacks to their credit so far this season. That being said, it should be noted that the Niners' defense, led by linebacker NaVorro Bowman, has played much better in home games than their ranking suggests. They are expected to have several key defensive players back from injury this week as well, including outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, who should bolster San Francisco's pass rush. It won’t be a slam dunk for McCarron and a few hiccups are to be expected, but he is fully capable of effectively leading the Bengals' offense this week.
2. 49ers' Offensive Line vs. Bengal Pass Rush
In last week’s loss to the Browns, the 49ers' offensive line gave up a ridiculous nine sacks. That becomes even more astonishing when you consider that Cleveland entered last week’s game ranked near the bottom of the NFL with just 17 sacks. San Francisco has now allowed more sacks (45) than any other NFL team this season. To make matters worse, the 49ers lost starting left guard, Alex Boone, to a possible MCL tear last week.
An anemic 49ers offensive line will be in for a monumental challenge this week. The Bengals have two of the NFL’s top pass-rush specialists in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. These two have combined for 18.5 of the Bengals' 34 sacks on the season. If 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula cannot figure out how to shore up his offensive front and convince the ultra-conservative Blaine Gabbert to get rid of the football in a hurry; the Cincinnati pass rush may end up making Gabbert a permanent fixture in the turf at Levi’s Stadium.
3. The Bengals' Rushing Attack vs. the 49er Run Defense
You can probably expect the Bengals to unleash a heavy dose of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard this week. Not only because of the Bengals' situation at quarterback, but because it provides Cincinnati with its best chance for success on offense.
Only one other team in the NFL has allowed more rushing yards than San Francisco so far this season. The 49ers' defense also has allowed the third-most rushing touchdowns (16). Last week, San Francisco allowed a terrible Cleveland run game to rush for a season-high 230 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bengals' run game should be able to take advantage of one of its more favorable matchups of the season this afternoon. Hill should rebound nicely from a poor showing last week against Pittsburgh, while speedy counterpart Bernard should continue to rack up yards by ground and air.
It’s difficult to understand how San Francisco ranks near the bottom of the NFL in almost every statistical defensive category, yet, no other unit in the NFL has allowed fewer points per game at home (15.8 ppg). Statistical anomalies aside, it is clear that the 49ers tend to play inspired defense at home. This week they have the added benefit of playing a Bengals team that will be without two of its biggest contributors on offense. Cincinnati will sorely miss starting quarterback Andy Dalton as well as NFL touchdown leader Tyler Eifert. In order to have success against the Niners' stubborn defense, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will need to step up in the run game for the visiting Bengals. A.J. Green must continue his hot streak, and AJ McCarron will have to limit mistakes in his first-ever NFL start at quarterback.
The 49ers have several glaring issues to contend with on offense. Their top wide receivers, Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, are both dinged up. Shaun Draughn has been largely ineffective in the running game. They have shuffled through numerous tight ends to little avail, and most importantly, San Francisco has a porous offensive line that could struggle to keep Blaine Gabbert upright. Even if the 49ers' defense lives up to its reputation on defense at home again on Sunday, San Francisco still has to find a way to score points on a stingy Bengals defense. A daunting challenge for an offense averaging an NFL-worst 14.5 points per game.
Prediction: Bengals 20, 49ers 10
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.