The Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) will face the No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans (12-5) on Saturday. The Bengals are fresh off their first playoff win since the 1990 season against the Raiders. The Titans are the No. 1 seed for the first time since 2008, but they have lost the last two times they were the AFC’s top seed. Both teams lost to the Jets this year, so there’s a rare, positive New York fact. But what about the NFL odds?
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Tennessee Titans
Saturday, January 22, 2022 – 04:30 PM EST at Nissan Stadium
The Titans (10-7 ATS) are a 3.5-point favorite over the Bengals (11-7 ATS) at many of BMR’s top-rated sportsbooks. Can Joe Burrow lead the Bengals to the first road playoff win in franchise history? Cincinnati is 0-7 all-time on the road in the playoffs. Will the bye week help the Titans look whole again with the return of running back Derrick Henry?
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Bengals: The Right Stuff?
The Bengals enter this game with the all-important advantage at quarterback. Going back to that magical year at LSU, Joe Burrow has been money in big games in his brief football career. But is a team led by its young passing connection enough to win on the road against a very physical team that loves to control the ball?
The Titans rank No. 2 in time of possession and have allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league while half the league allowed fewer points than Cincinnati this year. The pass defense for Cincinnati ranks 24th in DVOA while the Titans are No. 11. The Titans are also considerably better on third down and in the red zone than the Bengals on both sides of the ball.
Cincinnati’s young offensive core had a great season, but the Bengals only averaged 33.3 yards per drive, which ranked 17th and two spots behind the Titans (33.6). This comes despite Derrick Henry missing nine games, A.J. Brown missing four full games, and Julio Jones missing seven games.
While the Bengals came back to win a 34-31 shootout against the Chiefs in Week 17, this team usually does not perform well in the close games, the shootouts, or the slugfest games. The Bengals are 1-6 when scoring fewer than 24 points this year and 1-5 when allowing more than 24 points. Meanwhile, Tennessee is 12-1 when scoring at least 20 points and 3-2 when allowing at least 30 points.
The Titans are better at winning the close games. Head coach Mike Vrabel is 18-13 (.581) when the Titans have a game-winning drive (GWD) opportunity. Ryan Tannehill has led Tennessee to 13 GWD since 2019, the second-most in the league. Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor is only 4-18-1 (.196) at GWD opportunities. That record has improved with Burrow, but 3-8-1 (.292) would still be one of the worst records in the league. The Bengals failed to close the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers this year.
These teams last met in Cincinnati in 2020. The Bengals led wire-to-wire and won 31-20 for only the second win in Burrow’s rookie season. It is also a notable game in that Burrow had the most pass attempts (37) of his career without taking a sack. He only has three games without a sack in his first 27 starts. But the 2020 Titans (and 2020 Bengals, for that matter) were among the worst pass-rushing units in the league. Things have improved this year and Burrow should not have it so easy this time.
Perhaps a product of the schedule, the Bengals have allowed no more than 21 points in all but one road game this season. Unfortunately, that was a 34-31 loss to the Jets after the Bengals allowed unknown backup quarterback Mike White to pass for over 400 yards. But the Titans are quite arguably the best offense the Bengals have faced on the road this season.
That is especially true when Tennessee is fully stocked at the skill player positions, which has rarely been the case this season.
Titans: Rust or Rest?
The 2021 Titans made history by winning eight games against teams that finished with a winning record, the most such wins in a season in NFL history. Tennessee’s 8-3 (.727) record in such games is the highest winning percentage in NFL history (minimum nine games). Having a 17th game helped these records as teams like the Dolphins and Saints finished 9-8 instead of 8-8, but no team had more quality wins than the Titans this year, including wins over the Chiefs, Bills, Rams, and 49ers.
Of course, the Titans are also known for having an ugly overtime loss to the Jets and a 22-13 embarrassment against Houston. But not having healthy skill players in those games was a big problem for Tennessee, which is getting healthy at the right time.
Not only are the 2021 Titans not the worst No. 1 seed in NFL history, but they’re not the worst No. 1 seed in Tennessee history this century. Jeff Fisher’s 2008 Titans were all-time fool’s gold after a 10-0 start. But the Titans, with the pedestrian Kerry Collins at quarterback, stumbled down the stretch and lost their first playoff game 13-10 to Baltimore.
These Titans, when healthy, are a more dangerous team with success in the previous two seasons to support it. However, the Titans did score a season-low 13 points at home against Baltimore in the wild card round last year. Head coach Mike Vrabel has to make sure that doesn’t happen again as Derrick Henry was shut down in that game with 18 carries for 40 yards.
Henry has not played since Week 8, but it is worth noting that he only averaged 2.7 yards per carry in his last two games this season. The Titans will need a good game from Ryan Tannehill, who has only thrown for 534 yards in four career playoff starts. Burrow almost threw for that many yards against Baltimore in Week 16.
Tannehill has some great weapons in wideouts A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Tennessee is 10-1 when Brown plays at least 60% of the snaps in a game and 2-4 when he does not. But the Titans have been very conservative in the passing game the last two postseasons. Cincinnati allowed Derek Carr to pass for 310 yards, but he needed 54 attempts to do it. The Bengals need to get Trey Hendrickson (concussion) back for this game as he leads the team with 14 sacks. Still, it’s unlikely that the Titans will look for Tannehill to have a 300-yard game.
Turnovers are usually magnified in the playoffs. It is an issue for the Titans who were minus-3 in turnover differential. However, Tennessee had 13 giveaways and no takeaways during those three ugly losses to the Texans, Patriots, and Steelers when the offense was injured. That means the Titans were plus-10 in the other 14 games this season, but they are more prone to turnovers than the Bengals.
Cincinnati was average this season with 21 giveaways and 21 takeaways. They are 0-5 this season when having multiple turnovers as Burrow tended to throw his interceptions in bunches. The Bengals were able to protect the ball on Saturday while turning Derek Carr over twice, including a game-sealing interception.
The Bengals are an exciting, young team, but I think the next victory cigar will have to wait for next year. This is a good spot to back the rested team with home-field advantage, the better scoring defense, and the better coach. Vrabel is 4-0 after a bye week with every win by at least 14 points, including two wins over playoff teams (2018 Cowboys and 2020 Bills). Take the Titans to cover to start your NFL picks this weekend.
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