The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals, two teams fighting for a playoff spot in their respective conferences, will meet at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. The 49ers (6-6) and Bengals (7-5) are currently the seventh seed in their respective playoff brackets, so neither team has much room for error, making this somewhat of a must-win matchup for both teams.
San Francisco is at risk of playing the "what if" game by the end of the season, especially following a discouraging 30-23 road loss to Seattle last Sunday. The 49ers jumped out to a 17-7 lead that was 23-14 at halftime but couldn't prevent the Seahawks from coming all the back. Penalties (nine for 90 yards) and turnovers (three total) were both issues as well as converting just 30 percent of third-down opportunities (3 of 10). San Francisco has now lost 15 of 17 to Seattle, and these two most recent ones could really come back and sting the team. On a positive note, tight end George Kittle showed up in a big way, posting nine catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati turned in a Jekyll and Hyde performance in a 41-22 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers last Sunday. The Bengals fell behind 24-0 but answered with 22 points to get back in the game. However, it wasn't enough as the Chargers pulled away for a comfortable victory. Tevaughn Campbell's 61-yard fumble return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter sparked the decisive rally for the Chargers. Joe Burrow dislocated his pinky, which forced him to hand the ball off with his left hand. That is something to keep an eye on leading up to this week's game and to see if it impacts him at all against the 49ers. Cincinnati's defense forced three turnovers and held Los Angeles to 79 rushing yards but couldn't slow down Justin Herbert, who threw for 317 yards with three touchdowns (and an interception).
San Francisco (6-6) at Cincinnati (7-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 12 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Bengals -1
Three Things to Watch
It will be intriguing to see how San Francisco responds this week after such a tough loss. The health status of Elijah Mitchell is something to keep an eye on since the rookie left last week's game with a concussion and also is dealing with some irritation with his knee. He hasn't been able to practice so the running game could be handled by some combination of Jeff Wilson Jr. and JaMycal Hasty on Sunday. Jimmy Garoppolo has to have a short memory and take better care of the football as the Bengals must come after him with pressure. In addition, the best cure for a quarterback to get himself back on track is to feed George Kittle, although Deebo Samuel could be back after missing last week's game due to a groin injury. Samuel's versatility (he's already gone over 1,000 receiving yards but also is the team's second-leading rusher) has been a huge part of the offense this season. The 49ers will need him back and healthy to make a serious playoff run, but they also need some others to step up and produce.
2. Cincinnati offense
Maintaining balance will be crucial for the Bengals' offense because they can't have Burrow throw the ball 40 times. Joe Mixon, who could end up being a game-time decision because he's been dealing with an illness, needs to set a physical tone running the ball. Nick Bosa has been wreaking havoc from his defensive end spot and the rest of San Francisco's defense likes to play physical. Cincinnati's offensive line will have to respond and if the pass protection holds up, it should allow Burrow plenty of time to find his guys. With Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah the main targets, Burrow doesn't lack for options. He just needs to be content with getting rid of the ball quickly rather than focusing on the deep shots to try and negate the 49ers' pass rush. Paying attention to all the details and execution is key for the Bengals, as they can't afford to turn the ball over four times and stay in games. It also gives them a better shot at extending drives and keeping San Francisco's offense on the sideline.
3. Kyle Shanahan vs. Zac Taylor
Both head coaches have their work cut out for them this week, with their teams coming off tough losses. San Francisco is in a fierce battle for one of the final two wild card spots in the NFC, so the loss to the Seahawks put their backs against the wall a bit. Head coach Kyle Shanahan gets a ton of hype for his coaching ability from various media types that cover the NFL. But, if you look at his overall record of 35-41, it's hard to justify labeling him an elite coach despite the injuries and other issues that have happened during his tenure. Zac Taylor took over a rebuilding project in Cincinnati, and his 13-30-1 record reflects that to some extent. This season has been a step forward with seven wins but has had several key mishaps like a botched two-point conversion in the Chargers game that can't happen after 44 games as a head coach in the NFL. Shanahan has the advantage of coaching in bigger games circling back to the 2019 season and led the team to a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams on "Monday Night Football" back in Week 10. Taylor has a big win over the Baltimore Ravens 41-17 back in Week 7 but has an inexcusable Week 8 loss to the Jets this season, which is a red flag. Fans will learn a lot about both coaches this week and their ability to get their team to rise to the occasion with playoff implications at stake.
The game should be a full-fledged dogfight for 60 minutes as there is not a ton of separation between these two teams. The 49ers' defense will test Burrow early but will give up a couple of big plays in the second half. Garoppolo will connect with Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk for some explosive plays to keep them in the game until the fourth quarter. The Bengals' defense will be the difference-maker with a couple of turnovers that the offense turns into touchdowns. Cincinnati wins a one-score game to improve to 8-5 on the year.