The Bengals (6-4) have won four of their last five contests and sit in second place in the AFC North after knocking off the Steelers last weekend 37-30. Despite not having their best playmaker, Ja'Marr Chase, in the lineup the last few weeks, Cincy hasn't missed a beat. In their last four wins, the Bengals are averaging 36 points per game. With the return of Chase on the horizon — possibly this week — the Bengals are in great shape to pick up a road win on Sunday.
The Titans are 7-3, sitting atop the AFC South by a healthy margin, and yet still somewhat overlooked. Tennessee is no doubt one of the toughest and best-coached teams in the NFL. But their lacking strength of schedule (one win against a winning team) and general lack of offense have caused most pundits to pan the Titans when it comes to serious title contenders. Fair or not, the Titans have won seven of their last eight and are in prime condition to earn another first-round bye in this season's playoffs.
Cincinnati (6-4) at Tennessee (7-3)
Three Things to Watch
1. Mixon, sidelined?
There is a more than decent chance that the Bengals will be without their Pro Bowl running back, Joe Mixon, on Sunday afternoon. Mixon exited last week's game against Pittsburgh for the concussion protocol after just seven carries and he's questionable to play after not practicing Wednesday. If he can't go, it won't just be what Mixon does on the ground that the Bengals will be missing; he's also a vital part of their passing attack. Mixon's 43 catches are the fifth most of any running back in the league — and 13 more than any Titans player.
If Mixon is ruled out, the ball-carrying duties will likely fall on the shoulders of journeyman Samaje Perine, now in his second stint with the Bengals. Perine and fellow backup Trayveon Williams combined for 13 carries and just 37 yards filling in for Mixon last week against the Steelers. However, much like Mixon, Perine was effective in the passing game, catching a career-high three touchdown passes from Joe Burrow in the win.
If Mixon can't go — and even if he can, really — the Bengals are going to have a very tough time running the ball against this Tennessee defense. The Titans are the top-ranked rushing defense in the league, giving up just 82.2 yards per game on the ground. Tennessee opened the season by getting gashed for 339 yards rushing in their first two games but have allowed just 60 yards per game since.
2. Austin Hooper, the Titans' new weapon
The Titans aren't known much for their passing attack, ranking 31st in passing yards, 26th in completion percentage, 25th in touchdown passes, and 19th in points expected from throws. But if there has been one bright spot in the Titans' passing game in recent weeks, it's the emergence of tight end Austin Hooper. If you're unfamiliar with the name, that's understandable. Depending on what website depth chart you look at, Hooper might not even be listed as the Titans starting tight end behind either Geoff Swaim or Chigoziem Okonkwo.
But the fact is, Hooper has become one of Ryan Tannehill's favorite and more reliable targets. Hooper is second on the team with 21 catches. Nine of those receptions have come in the last two weeks, including two red zone scores last game against the Packers. Hooper offers a big, physical target whose vice-grip hands have led to some spectacular catches in the last few weeks. He's especially good at helping the Titans keep drives alive and working the clock. Fourteen of his 21 catches have resulted in first downs, while 10 of them have come on third downs.
With rookie receiver Treylon Burks back in the lineup and occupying opposing secondaries' attention, this could put Hooper into more favorable matchups with linebackers, finally giving Tannehill more options and offering the Titans at least a semblance of offensive balance.
3. The return of Ja'Marr Chase?
Burrow has been without his best wide receiver for the last three games. Chase has been sidelined and on crutches after sustaining a hip injury several weeks ago. Well, according to the NFL Network's Ian Rappaport, Chase has ditched the crutches, is practicing, and is on pace to make his return against the Titans on Sunday.
The impending return of Chase not only gives Burrow his best receiver back, but someone who can take the top off of opposing defenses, just like Chase did in the Bengals playoff upset against the Titans last season when he totaled 105 yards on just five catches. Before the injury, Chase was on fire, catching 15 balls for 262 yards and four scores in his last two outings.
The scary part about Chase's impending return is that Burrow has been just fine without him in the lineup. In the three games without his LSU teammate, Burrow still completed 69.6 percent of his throws, amassed 793 total passing yards, posted a 103.1 passer rating, and threw seven touchdowns as the Bengals went 2-1.
If Chase does return this week, he couldn't have picked a better opponent. The Titans' secondary, while opportunistic (nine interceptions), has a propensity for letting receivers go off. Tennessee has allowed the third most TD passes (18) and passing yards per game (266 yards) this season.
It goes without saying that the Bengals have to try and slow the league's leading rusher in Derrick Henry. Duh. But just as much, the Titans are going to have to check one of the best passing attacks in the NFL with Burrow and the Bengals. If it requires more than 24 points to win, give me the Bengals.
Prediction: Bengals 28, Titans 22
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
*Price as of publication.