Cincinnati Bengals X-Factors for Wild Card Weekend

Bengals X-Factors

For the first time since 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals are AFC North Champions and in the NFL Playoffs. Despite beating the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 11, 32-13, the Bengals x-factors are going to have to step up again to deliver the city of Cincinnati its first playoff victory in 31 years.

All year, playmakers have stepped up for the Bengals. Joe Burrow is obviously one of the Bengals x-factors, but let’s focus on non-MVP candidates. For the 10-6 Bengals to do exorcise “the curse of Bo,” these three are going to have to step up.

Cincinnati Bengals X-Factors for Wild Card Weekend

Tee Higgins Has to Make Plays

Playing opposite Ja’Marr Chase has its perks. As defenses focus on the rookie phenom, Tee Higgins has been able to make plays down the stretch. In his last six games played, Higgins has recorded 645 yards and four touchdowns off of 37 receptions. The “9+85=7″ saying has had a resurgence in Cincinnati. Oddly enough, the original iteration of that included the number one receiver for the team; Higgins is the second receiver behind Chase.

Despite missing three games, Higgins reeled in 74 catches for 1.091 yards and six touchdowns. Cincinnati may have drafted Chase to be a downfield threat, but Higgins can do it just as well. Given his 6’4” frame, he has ignited the offense with numerous explosive plays. Every time defenses show a little too much respect to Chase, Higgins is there, making big plays. Of his 1.091 yards, only 290 came after the catch. That’s an average of fewer than four yards after catch per.

On the receiving end of 17 explosive plays, Higgins ranks tied for tenth-most among all receivers and tight ends in the league. It certainly helps to have a pair of weapons like Higgins and Chase. Just two of his six touchdowns were explosive, interestingly enough.

Against a team that lives and breathes Cover 3, Higgins was held in check in the first matchup. Two catches for 15 yards will not be enough to win this game. However, that game came before his recent tear. Adding Higgins as a legitimate threat downfield opposite Chase will open up the offense in a way that Cincinnati did not have before. Box score watchers may think that the Bengals easily handled the Raiders in that first matchup. Higgins’ lack of production was a big reason why it was only a 16-13 lead with five minutes to go in the game.

Joe Mixon went off for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns in that first matchup. Considering that Mixon has yet to have anything less than a great game against Las Vegas, they may focus on trying to limit his impact, opening up for a Tee Higgins playoff breakout party.

D.J. Reader Must Control the Interior

Possibly the most underrated Bengals x-factor and most egregious Pro Bowl snub, Reader will be massive for Cincinnati. It’s extremely likely that D.J. Reader is ignored due to his absence from box scores. Those who watch the Bengals know the impact that Reader has and how he has been an elite-run defender all year.

In that Week 11 matchup, Reader logged just three assisted tackles. However, the massive nose tackle who can two-gap offensive lines wrecked any and all running game the Raiders attempted to get going. Josh Jacobs ran the ball nine times for 37 yards and Kenyan Drake went for 23 yards of five carries. The rushing attack was not a part of the Raiders game plan from the get-go and that is likely due to how Reader can eat the dreams of rushing attacks.

It’s no secret that the Bengals rush defense has been nearly impenetrable. Cincinnati allowed the fifth-fewest yards per game on the ground. Since the bye, Cincinnati has allowed fewer than 90 yards per game on the ground in games that Reader appeared. He was not on the field for the Week 18 loss against Cleveland and they were gashed for 205. Whereas the third-best rushing offense in the NFL resides in Baltimore and they only managed 39 yards.

Even if the Raiders average just 95.1 yards per game on the ground, establishing the middle of the line and rendering Jacobs useless makes the defense’s job that much easier.

Zac Taylor Will Have to Learn From His Losses

Can a coach be one of the Bengals x-factors? Of course! Zac Taylor is the one calling the shots and is tasked with making the adjustments that lead a team to victory or failure. The NFL Coach of the Year candidate has had a massive turnaround year. Despite only winning six games in his first two years, Taylor has won 10 games in the 2021 season and is looking to add a few more.

The most prominent argument about Taylor is that he doesn’t learn from his losses. He even said that he’s learning from each loss after dropping a pair of winnable games against the west coast due to poor execution and coaching all around. It seems like he’s learned from his now 32 losses.

Of course, it helps to have Burrow on his side. In his two years as quarterback, only two teams have beaten the Bengals twice with Burrow as a starter: the Chargers (0-2) and the Browns (0-3).

Taylor is finally learning from his mistakes and is letting Burrow do what he does best. The last two wins against the Ravens and Chiefs show this. As an offensive-minded coach, Taylor’s unit is experiencing a mind-numbing amount of success despite having an extremely weak offensive line. Not to mention the caliber of elite pass rushers the Bengals have had to face in Myles Garrett (twice), Maxx Crosby, T.J. Watt (twice), and both Bosas in back-to-back weeks. Burrow and Taylor are winning in spite of the offensive line; which, admittedly is better than last year, but still bad.

That Cover 3 defense, paired with Crosby upfront, can give Taylor fits. If they can keep Crosby to a similar stat line as he had in Week 11, Taylor will secure his first playoff victory. If not, he’s at risk of being out-coached by a team without a permanent head coach.

Can the Raiders Upset?

“On any given Sunday.” “Why not us?”

The Bengals x-factors will have to step up and deliver. Cincinnati is yearning for a successful professional team. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. The Reds haven’t since 1995. FC Cincinnati is a mess right now. The key for this game will be whether or not Taylor trusts his offense to go out and make plays. While Derek Carr may not be the greatest quarterback the team has faced thus far, if you keep the game close, he can make you pay.

Taylor said that his mentality in the Week 11 matchup was to “pound and pound and the dam will break.” Neither team is who they were 57 days before this Wild Card matchup. Cincinnati can win this game. Regardless, Burrow and company will make it worth tuning in at 4:30 on Saturday, January 15th.

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images


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