Will the third time be the charm for the NFL's 2016 London finale?
Redskins, Bengals, you can’t hop on a plane soon enough. The NFL’s flirtation with London hasn’t exactly brought Super Bowl-contending teams overseas this season, perhaps another reason, in a long list of them, for the decline in TV ratings. The first two games, played at Wembley and Twickenham Stadiums, respectively featured four teams with a combined record of 12-16.
Those numbers aren’t exactly the type of “marquee matchups” you want for a bunch of early Sunday morning games that highlight the growing effort for the NFL to expand internationally. I mean... the Jaguars? The Rams? We’re more likely to see a third-party candidate like Jill Stein in the White House than we are either one of those teams in the Super Bowl.
The third and final edition of overseas football though brings two potential playoff teams to England. Washington, after an ugly start seems poised to challenge Dallas in the NFC East while its opponent, Cincinnati has a streak of five consecutive postseason appearances. Both have dynamic wide receivers capable of catching the deep ball (A.J. Green, DeSean Jackson); they also have much-maligned quarterbacks (Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins) who have gotten their act together as of late.
Both teams also have the benefit of a bye week after London, putting them in position to rest up after the long trip. With tough schedules ahead for each team, especially the Redskins, it’s a high-energy game that’ll be the perfect cap to a 2016 London series packed with fans but that’s lacked the punch of quality play the NFL is known for.
Series History: Cincinnati Leads 5-4 (Bengals have won past three meetings, Redskins last won in 1991)
Washington at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 30 at 9:30 a.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Bengals -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Redskins recover from a close loss?
For 59 minutes, Washington played a solid game in Detroit last week. Up 17-13 with 1:05 on the clock, a fifth straight win seemed well in hand. Kirk Cousins, whose efficiency has been questioned and who had fumbled twice earlier in the game, answered the bell when he needed to, positioning his team for a hard-earned road victory. That’s what the team and fans want, right?
Too bad in this case, Cousins was a little too efficient while the Redskins’ strong defense suddenly collapsed. Matthew Stafford drove the Lions 75 yards in 49 seconds, carving up Washington’s defense and scoring the game-winning touchdown with just 16 second remaining. Just like that, it was Detroit leaving Ford Field with all of the momentum, while the Redskins were headed back home reeling. To make matters worse, shutdown cornerback Josh Norman left the game with a concussion, part of why the Redskins gave up 250 passing yards – the most in a game since their win streak started in Week 3.
Norman, who is officially listed as Questionable for Sunday’s game, did travel with the team to London, as did tight end (also dealing with a concussion) Jordan Reed. Even if Norman doesn’t play, Washington’s D should give Cincinnati all it can handle, especially if the Redskins can get back to pressuring the quarterback. Their 19 sacks are tied for seventh in the NFL through Week 7 and the scheme itself was working until getting beaten by Detroit’s two-minute drill offense.
As for Washington on that side of the ball, the offense was more inconsistent against the Lions than it has been in recent weeks, but has developed a solid receiving corps for Cousins to spread the ball around to. While DeSean Jackson has struggled a bit Jamison Crowder (7 catches, 108 yards Sunday) has stood out as a go-to possession guy. Former 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (68 yards Sunday) also has done a great job filling in for Reed.
To sum it up, nothing is broken right now with the Redskins. They need to keep this in mind as they look to rebound from last week’s difficult loss while dealing with the unique circumstances of Sunday’s game, not to mention their opponent.
2. Will the Bengals’ offense keep rolling?
Even though it was against the hapless Browns, Cincinnati had perhaps its best offensive performance of the season last week. Besides scoring a season-high 31 points, the Bengals had a balanced attack from their best players: 300-yard passing game from Andy Dalton, a season-best 168 rushing yards rushing from Jeremy Hill and 169 receiving yards from A.J. Green.
But there were other, more subtle indicators that additional improvement should be expected. There was the much-anticipated return of tight end Tyler Eifert, whose snaps were limited and recorded just one reception, but he figures to play a much bigger role in London. For the first time all season, the offense also converted at least 50 percent of its third down conversions (5 of 10) and committed just three penalties.
When Dalton is in rhythm, that’s when the offense seems to click. He was interception- and fumble-free once again and he’s only thrown two picks this year. Can he keep that momentum rolling against a team that will put pressure on him? And can the offensive line step up, protect their QB as well as they did last week and give their litany of offensive weapons an opportunity to spread the field with their speed?
3. Can the Bengals (or Redskins) beat a quality opponent?
For Cincinnati, this season has mirrored the team’s frustrating pattern of stalling out somewhere in the AFC’s middle tier. In the Bengals’ three wins, they’ve outscored opponents 76-46, and have looked impressive on both sides of the ball. However, those victories are against the Jets, Dolphins and Browns, teams that enter Week 8 with a collective record 5-16.
On the flip side, Cincinnati has been outscored 116-64, nearly a 2-to-1 margin, in its four losses to New England, Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh. These teams are currently leading or are tied for first in their respective division. In each of those games, the outcome was decided long before the final whistle as the Bengals did not appears to be on the same level as each of these potential Super Bowl contenders.
What we have then is a franchise that beats the bad teams only to get beaten up by the good ones. At some point, you need a quality win; the schedule dictates that with six of Cincinnati’s remaining nine games against teams with winning records. It’s been the knock against head coach Marvin Lewis and one he’ll need to fix if the team is to earn a sixth straight playoff appearance.
As for Washington, a brutal upcoming slate of games ensures that, at least on paper, the Bengals are one of the “weakest” opponents it will play. Following the Week 9 bye, the Redskins’ next five games are against the Vikings, Packers, Cowboys, Cardinals and Eagles, with the last three coming on the road. Heading into the bye with a 5-3 record versus 4-4 becomes crucial.
Cincinnati may be the designated “home” team, but the London locale neutralizes home-field advantage. Even after last week’s crushing loss, Washington enters this game having won four of its past five. Assuming the Redskins can put the sting of that Detroit loss behind them, then it’s full steam ahead behind an offensive attack that improves with each passing week.
Prediction: Redskins 27, Bengals 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.