NFL Nation: Bengals-Vikings 121309

Winfield pushes up Minnesota's defense

December, 13, 2009
Antoine WinfieldTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesAntoine Winfield picked up where he left off as the NFL's best tackler.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few minutes passed Sunday before Antoine Winfield arrived at his moment of truth. It had been two months since he last attempted a tackle, a gap caused by a slow-healing sprained foot. So on a third-down play during Cincinnati’s second series, Winfield saw a screen play coming his way.

“I’ve pretty much perfected the art of tackling,” Winfield said. “I wrap up. Usually when I hit you, you’ll go down.”

But no one knew if that would be the case when the Vikings’ Pro Bowl cornerback finally returned to the field. Would he pick up where he left off as the NFL’s best tackler? Would he be rusty? Would the foot hamper his movement?

Winfield answered those questions and much more as Minnesota clinched a playoff berth with a 30-10 victory over Cincinnati. After catching the screen pass, Bengals tailback Brian Leonard attempted to jump over a pile of potential tacklers. Winfield grabbed his leg and pulled him down for no gain. The play was the first of Winfield’s nine solo tackles in the game, the key part of a defensive effort that harassed the Bengals' offense into its worst game of the season.

The Vikings’ defense has played winning football without Winfield. But Sunday, there was little doubt about how he elevates it to another level. As you can see in the chart below, the Bengals managed only 36 yards on the nine plays where Winfield made the tackle. He stopped the ball carrier short of a first down on seven of those plays.

Perhaps the most significant instance came just before halftime, when Winfield upended Leonard on another pass and forced a fumble. The Vikings recovered in time for Ryan Longwell to kick a 44-yard field goal, giving Minnesota a 16-7 lead at halftime and permanently swinging the momentum of the game.

“When you lose a key guy like Antoine, there is just a void on your team,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You can’t fill those voids. There are intangibles that guys bring to the position that you can’t see on paper. You might have another guy in there, but he can’t make the kind of splash plays that an Antoine Winfield can make. It has a domino effect and makes everybody better.”

Indeed, Winfield helped the Vikings hold what has been a potent Cincinnati attack to a season-low 210 yards. Minnesota also dramatically improved its perimeter run defense with Winfield in the lineup.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings entered Week 14 allowing the second-highest average per rush (4.8) outside the numbers of the field this season. Although Bengals tailback Cedric Benson rushed for 96 yards on 16 carries, most of the damage came in the middle of the field. The Bengals averaged 2.7 yards outside the numbers.

“Those are the kinds of things you miss from him,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said. “Those splash plays that happen on the edge when he approaches a sweep, usually those are lost yardage plays. It has a tendency to elevate the rest of the defensive guys.”

That seemed to occur even in the passing game, where the Bengals smartly schemed themselves away from Winfield. But fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin limited receiver Chad Ochocinco to three receptions for 27 yards while also teaming with Winfield for two key plays early in the fourth quarter.

The Bengals were threatening to make it a one-score game after getting a first-and-goal at the 8. Winfield diagnosed their second-down play, abandoning coverage on a tight end to stop Benson for a 5-yard gain. On third down, Griffin knocked away a pass intended for Ochocinco in the end zone.

“Antoine is just an exciting player,” Griffin said. “We feed off of him and his intensity.”

Winfield, in fact, said he hoped to bring “energy” to the defense after watching from the sidelines as it got steamrolled last week in Arizona.

“Last week,” he said, “we didn’t really feel it and came out and got our butts whupped. Today was different.”

Although Winfield’s injury isn’t likely to heal completely until after the season, there’s little doubt he brought the Vikings a big lift at the lowest point of their season. Defensive end Jared Allen, for one, said the Vikings have “so much confidence” when Winfield is on the field and defending the perimeter.

They also have a few more laughs.

Winfield had everyone smiling in the second quarter when he dropped an easy interception at midfield. After watching the replay on the Metrodome video board, Winfield dropped to the ground and performed 10 pushups. A sellout crowd of 63,854 roared in approval.

“That’s the thing I just automatically thought to do,” he said. “In practice, when you drop a ball, you go down and get your 10 pushups in. I mean, the ball hit me right in the chest.”

It was his only mistake during an otherwise glistening return. There was no doubt Sunday. Winfield is back.

Bengals are good, but not elite

December, 13, 2009
Carson PalmerJerry Lai/US PresswirePass protection continues to be an issue for the Bengals, as quarterback Carson Palmer managed just 94 yards passing in Cincinnati's 30-10 loss at Minnesota on Sunday.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Don't let one awful game fool you: The Cincinnati Bengals are not as bad as they showed in Sunday's 30-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

But what the Bengals proved in Week 14 is that they're not elite, and that was the biggest statement they made during their trip to Minneapolis.

When it comes to Super Bowl contenders, the Bengals should be left out of the equation. It's the Vikings (11-2), Indianapolis Colts (13-0), New Orleans Saints (13-0), and then it's everybody else.

Maybe the San Diego Chargers (10-3) or Green Bay Packers (9-4) will eventually creep into the conversation. But the Bengals had a golden opportunity to accomplish that feat Sunday by beating the Vikings and failed miserably.

Penalties and poor execution contributed to Cincinnati's blowout defeat. The Vikings also played very well and exposed some of the Bengals' weaknesses.

Here is what we learned:

Cincinnati's offense is too one-dimensional

This has been pointed out several times recently in the AFC North blog. Cincinnati is too reliant on the running game this year and hasn't taken enough shots downfield.

Against Minnesota, the Bengals' longest completion was a 15-yard touchdown to receiver Chad Ochocinco. In 25 attempts, quarterback Carson Palmer threw for just 94 yards with three completions of 10 yards or more.

"I am not sure if we were really focused on getting the passing game going today," Ochocinco said. "I think what we wanted to do was establish the run like we have been doing all year. We wanted to pass, as needed."

To Cincinnati's credit, tailback Cedric Benson ran well with 96 yards on 16 carries. But when you're down by multiple scores in the second half, those yards on the ground become hollow.

Perhaps the biggest quandary of all is whether the Bengals won't throw deep or can’t? The former suggests there is a solution by merely adjusting the scheme and play-calling. The latter means it's a glaring weakness Cincinnati has to live with this year.

The answer to this question could determine how far the Bengals advance in the postseason.

Bengals can't overcome penalties

The Bengals are good, but certainly not good enough to overcome 11 penalties on the road against an elite opponent.

On and off, penalties have been an issue for Cincinnati. The difference is committing nine against the Detroit Lions (2-11) in Week 13 will result in a 10-point victory for the Bengals. But committing 11 penalties on the road against the Vikings turns out to be a 20-point loss.

Add them up and the Bengals have been penalized 20 times in the past two weeks. Many have been mental errors, such as jumping offside or a personal foul for a late hit. At one point the Bengals had 12 men in the huddle on offense, which should be unacceptable for a first-place team this late in the season.

"It doesn’t help us and it's something we have to correct," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think the noise has a little bit to do with it, but we have played in noisy places before."

Pass protection is shaky

Although one sack on the stat sheet doesn't tell the full story, Cincinnati continues to struggle with pass protection.

Entering this week, Cincinnati allowed eight sacks in the past three games. Against Minnesota, Palmer took five hits in the pocket but avoided sacks by getting rid of the football quickly and scrambling (four attempts, 10 yards).

These issues will all be highlighted as the Bengals look forward to their next game against the Chargers on Dec. 20. This is another huge meeting between two division leaders, and the winner will secure the head-to-head tiebreaker in a race for the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

San Diego has similar personnel to Minnesota, which could give the Bengals trouble, particularly offensively. The Vikings mixed the strong running game of Adrian Peterson (97 yards, two touchdowns) with decent quarterback play, and the Chargers potentially can do the same with tailbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles and the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers.

A telling sign will be if Cincinnati can shake off this loss and avoid a two-game losing streak late in the season.

"Today was a big learning lesson," Benson said. "We got a lot of young guys and not many guys that’s had a playoff run or an opportunity to be in a playoff situation. Today was [similar to] a playoff game. It was a tough opponent, and I’m sure we’ll learn from this one."

Rapid Reaction: Vikings 30, Bengals 10

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- For the second consecutive season, Minnesota is in the playoffs.

That’s the bottom line after Sunday’s action in the NFC North, which included the Vikings’ convincing victory over Cincinnati. Minnesota never trailed in the process of handing the Bengals their first loss to a North team -- NFC or AFC -- this season.

Green Bay’s victory at Soldier Field prevented the Vikings from clinching the NFC North, but at 11-2 they secured at least an NFC wild-card berth. Their magic number to win the division is now 1, meaning they can clinch next Sunday with a victory at Carolina or a Packers loss at Pittsburgh.

The Vikings haven’t won more than 10 games in a season since 2000.

We’ll have plenty more about the Vikings’ dismantling of the Bengals in a few hours. I thought it was one of their best defensive performances of the season, especially after getting steamrolled in Arizona last week. The return of cornerback Antoine Winfield (nine solo tackles) made a huge difference. Meanwhile, tailback Adrian Peterson set a franchise record with his 13th and 14th rushing touchdowns of the season.

Back with you a in a bit.

Rapid Reaction: Vikings 30, Bengals 10

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals felt they would learn a lot about themselves with back-to-back games against division leaders, the Minnesota Vikings this week and the San Diego Chargers next week.

But on Sunday, the Bengals didn’t impress in the first challenge.

The Bengals (9-4), one of the NFL's biggest surprises this year, were dealt a harsh dose of reality during a 30-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings (11-2). Many around the league were wondering if Cincinnati had what it takes to be an elite team. But the Bengals blew an opportunity to prove themselves in Minnesota with too many penalties and overall inefficient play.

Despite the loss, Cincinnati remains in the running for the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Bengals currently trail by a half-game to the San Diego Chargers (9-3), who will play the Dallas Cowboys later this evening.

Next week the Chargers will play host to the Bengals in another huge game with tiebreaker implications. But Cincinnati will need a much better effort on the road next week in order to beat another quality team.

Why kick a field goal?

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS—Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is doing a great job this season. But he made a curious call in the fourth quarter.

Down 16 and deep in Minnesota Vikings' territory, Lewis opted to take the field goal on fourth down to cut the lead to 23-10.

Regardless of the kick, it’s still a two-possession game. The Bengals will need to get in the end zone twice and may have blew their best chance to do it in the fourth quarter.

Bad call from the Bengals.

Your latest playoff scenarios

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- I’ll preface this with the usual “we have a long way to go” caveat. But while we have a moment, let’s just set the stage here in the NFC North.

Minnesota is holding a 16-point lead here in the final minutes of the third quarter at the Metrodome. Green Bay is trailing Chicago by one point at Soldier Field.

If the Vikings win and the Packers lose, Minnesota will clinch the NFC North championship. Even if the Packers win, the Vikings can clinch a playoff spot with a victory. We’ll keep you updated.

Vikings' Taylor makes big impact

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson just scored from a yard out to give the Vikings a 23-7 lead. But I thought it was quite appropriate when coach Brad Childress first congratulated backup tailback Chester Taylor on the sideline.

Taylor turned in three big plays on the drive, converting two third downs with receptions that totaled 33 yards and also busting a 17-yard run to put the Vikings in the red zone. Taylor is perpetually the forgotten man in the Vikings offense, but he routinely makes critical conversions during the course of the game.

The Bengals could certainly come back from this deficit, but we’re approaching the point of the game -- midway through the third quarter -- when they’ll have to go to a pass-only mentality to do it. The Vikings’ NFL-leading pass rush often has its way in those situations.

Bengals letting game get away

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals needed a full four quarters to pull the upset of the Minnesota Vikings Sunday.

But right now, early in the third period, the game is getting away from Cincinnati.

It started towards the end of the half when the Vikings scored back-to-back field goals within 38 seconds to take a nine-point lead. Then, Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson dove in for another touchdown run to start the third quarter to up the lead to 23-7.

The Bengals have lost all momentum in this game. Their only hope of getting back into it is Cincinnati’s offense putting points on the board. But the Bengals have struggled all game with execution and penalties.

Bengals-Vikings halftime notes

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings lead the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-7, at intermission.

Here are some halftime observations:

  • Cincinnati’s pass protection hasn’t been great this year. But it is really getting exposed by Minnesota’s defense. The Vikings have one of the top defensive lines in the NFL, and they are winning a lot of battles up front on obvious passing downs. The Bengals likely will have to keep some tight ends and running backs in to help in the second half.
  • The Bengals are running the ball well, which has been their strength all season. Starting tailback Cedric Benson has 41 yards on seven carries and is averaging 5.9 yards per attempt. But the Bengals are behind and probably will need more big passing plays if they want to win this one.
  • Cincinnati has been very undisciplined when it comes to penalties. The Bengals have been flagged eight times already for 65 yards, and it’s come from the offense and defense. Many of these have been mental errors such as late hits or false starts.
  • Look for the Vikings to test Bengals backup safety Tom Nelson. Cincinnati starter Chris Crocker was carted off the field with an ankle injury in the first half, and Nelson is expected to play the rest of the game. The Bengals have struggled all year with slot receivers and tight ends.

Ochocinco doesn't celebrate

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- All of the hype and pregame fanfare went for naught.

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco scored a touchdown to cut the Bengals' deficit to 10-7 against the Minnesota Vikings. But the score wasn’t followed by any type of celebration.

Ochocinco simply ran back to the sideline as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was the first to greet him and gave him a good talking. Most likely, Lewis told Ochocinco it’s a big game, and the team doesn’t need any more flags or money taken away from the receiver.

So Ochocinco stood pat and talked to quarterback Carson Palmer on the sideline. During the week, Ochocinco threatened to take the horn from the Vikings' mascot.

Bengals break through

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- Cincinnati managed 32 total yards on its first four possessions before moving 82 yards on its fifth possession, which ended with a strange-looking 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chad Ochocinco.

(If Ochocinco plans a celebration, we haven’t seen it yet.)

It appeared that Ochocinco was preparing to run a reverse behind quarterback Carson Palmer before he stopped, pivoted toward the sideline and caught a swing pass. No Vikings defensive player was with 10 yards of him at the time, and Ochocinco cruised into the end zone.

I thought the Vikings defense had been doing an excellent job against the Bengals’ unbalanced line, filling every hole, but Palmer found his form on that drive. We've got a 10-7 ballgame here with about 3 minutes left in the half.

Bengals' Crocker carted off the field

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- Cincinnati Bengals starting safety Chris Crocker was carted off the field with an ankle injury.

Crocker had been bothered by a bum ankle during the week and was listed on the injury report. It turns out he couldn't make it through the first half on Sunday.

Tom Nelson is in the lineup in place of Crocker.

Harvin's absence looms large

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- We’ve seen at least one play here at the Metrodome where Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre clearly missed receiver Percy Harvin.

On a 3rd-and-5 situation at the Bengals’ 36-yard line, Favre was under heavy pressure and didn’t have much time to scan the field. More than anyone else in 2009, Harvin has been his target in those situations.

But with Harvin sitting out this game because of migraine headaches, Favre forced the ball toward receiver Bernard Berrian. Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall stepped in front of Favre to make a pretty routine interception.

Both offenses have been out of sort so far in this game. For his part, Favre has missed on four of his first five throws.

Bengals sloppy early

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals won the coin toss, but didn’t have the type of opening drive they planned for.

Cincinnati had four penalties, three of which were accepted, and a quarterback sack to go scoreless on its first possession. The Bengals could have done themselves a huge favor by getting some early points on the board to quiet a raucous crowd here in Minnesota.

This is shaping up to be a physical game involving two very good defenses. The Bengals forced Minnesota to go three-and-out on its first offensive possession.

Ochocinco already on prowl

December, 13, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome press box, where things got off to a hectic start but just took a fun turn.

As we noted earlier, it already appears evident that Minnesota receiver Percy Harvin won’t play against Cincinnati because of migraine headaches. One receiver who will play, however, is the Bengals' Chad Ochocinco, who has already found and “confronted” Minnesota mascot Ragnar.

As you might remember, Ochocinco said earlier this week that he wanted to steal Ragnar’s Viking horn and motorcycle when and if he scores in this game. Ragnar responded with a challenge of his own. At about 10:15 a.m. ET on Sunday morning -- almost three hours before kickoff -- a few of us noticed Johnson checking out the “Gjallarhorn” on the Vikings’ sideline.

A moment or two later, Ragnar came out of a tunnel good-naturedly gesturing toward Ochocinco. The two men hugged, spoke for a minute and then parted ways. I tried to take a picture with my cell phone, but apparently cell phone cameras aren’t good from 200 yards away.

I’m told by reliable sources that the Gjallarhorn will be locked up during the game. Ragnar? It appears that he’s ready to participate in any skit Ochocinco might have cooked up. Stay tuned.