The Raiders and Bengals arrived to the postseason under much different circumstances. The Bengals clinched the AFC North in Week 17 and rested starters in Week 18, allowing some key players to heal a few bruises ahead of the playoffs. For better or worse, it was a luxury the Bengals earned the right to exercise. The Raiders had no such breathing room. They were 6-7 in mid-December and had to rally for four straight wins to close the season, capped by a Week 18 overtime thriller against the Chargers, just to clinch a wild-card berth. In short, the Raiders snuck in the backdoor while the Bengals slept on the couch. They’ll meet for the second time this season, the first being a resounding 32-13 Cincinnati win in Week 11.
Here are four things to watch when the Bengals play host to the Raiders on Saturday afternoon:
- Joe Burrow is on fire. Or is he? The Bengals star QB's last two starts yielded his highest yardage totals of the season -- 525 against the Ravens and 446 against the Chiefs. Cincy won both games with the sort of offensive explosiveness that can carry a club through the postseason. A minor knee injury, and head coach Zac Taylor’s decision to rest starters, kept him out of a season-ending loss to the Browns. Burrow's expected to be fine, but can he pick up where he left off after a week on the sideline? A healthy Burrow doesn’t necessarily mean one as locked-in as the Burrow who blasted the Ravens and Chiefs for a combined eight touchdowns without an interception.
- Keep an eye on Maxx Crosby. The Raiders' outstanding defensive end will be working mostly against Bengals right tackle Isaiah Prince, who took over for Riley Reiff to start the last three games of the season. Prince has graded poorly in pass protection, per Pro Football Focus; Cincinnati might be well-advised to offer him some help in dealing with Crosby, who led the NFL in QB pressures (82). On the other side, Yannick Ngakoue will be no picnic for left tackle Jonah Williams either as he finished third in the NFL with 71 pressures. If there’s a mismatch to be found on the edge for the Raiders, it’s with Crosby on Prince.
- The Raiders running game is coming around. It’s more than just the season-high 174 yards Las Vegas ran for in the season finale against the Chargers’ porous rush defense. Their second best total of the year, 160, came just two weeks earlier against the Denver Broncos. It’s been a long time coming for a Raiders offense that was expected to have much better balance this season. It’s also come with a heavy lean on Josh Jacobs, who’s looked excellent in averaging 23 carries per game over his last three games.
- Can Las Vegas contain Trey Hendrickson? Against Las Vegas in Week 11, the Bengals star pass rusher had four pressures, two hurries, a sack and a forced fumble on 25 pass rush snaps. He’s had more productive games on the stat sheet, but that one represented his best pass-rush grade of the season (90.0) per PFF. With a career-high 14 sacks, he’s been everything defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo could have hoped for in his first season in Cincy. He’ll likely line up for most of his snaps against Raiders left tackle Kolton Miller, who’s had the best season of anyone on the Raiders’ offensive line. It should make for an epic battle on passing downs.
Next Gen Stat of the game: In Week 11 at Las Vegas, Burrow helped avoid pressure by throwing quick passes (under 2.5 seconds to throw) on a career-high 72.4 percent of his attempts.
NFL Research: Raiders QB Derek Carr and Burrow will make their first playoff starts. Carr will look to be the first Raiders QB to win a playoff game since Rich Gannon in the 2002 AFC title game against Tennessee, while Burrow would be the first Bengals QB to do so since Boomer Esiason (1990, vs. Houston Oilers).