Cincinnati Bengals @ Tennessee Titans predictions: A step-up too far for Cincy right now

A fascinating AFC Divisional Round clash sees two teams who have some fantastic individual brilliance, but two teams that not many feel can go all the way and win the Super Bowl.

It's quite an odds situation here as the flashy big-play Bengals are getting plenty of love and "team of the future" labels but no Super Bowl picks - while the Titans remain criminally underrated as AFC top seeds with plenty going for them.

Whoever wins will be underdogs in the AFC Championship, but which underdog will have their day?

When: Saturday, Jan 22, 21:30 GMT

Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee

How to watch: Sky Sports

The Titans: Underrated top seeds have Henry back

Tennessee Titans Derrick Henry

Nobody's rating the Titans' chance of going all the way. They're not a sexy team in a glamourous location with a movie star quarterback or a long history of winning things - but they just might leave a few with egg on their faces.

Yes, you can point to some inconsistency as all their five defeats this season were bad ones. Shock defeats to the lowly Jets and Texans, an error-strewn loss in Pittsburgh and two 20-plus losses to the Patriots and Cardinals are black spots.

Yet they've handled the Rams easily enough and crucially battered the Chiefs and edged the Bills in Nashville - where they'd face them again for the AFC title with victory here - so the question is which version of this Titans team side you believe will turn up on Saturday?

They've had the bye week off, which is huge, and having gone 6-3 without Derrick Henry they now get their talismanic rusher back to add that x-factor to a unit that's won seven games by just one score and just a 3.8-poin average margin of victory over the season.

Winning close games, grinding out victories, is a huge asset come play-off time, as is the bruising presence of Henry - and in his first game back after a lengthy absence it may well be his presence that's actually more important than his production, which will likely not be up to his usual eye-popping levels.

He averages 111.7 rushing yards over six play-off games - with three of those going over 150 yards - and while his back-up D'Onta Foreman has actually performed just as well statistically in his place, Henry's appearance on the field will just have that much more impact on the Bengals.

The Bengals: Can the team of tomorrow win today?

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow

It's a fairly unanimous consensus that the Bengals will be a perennial challenger with quarterback Joe Burrow and his array of attacking weapons. They'll have their time, but the only questions is whether that time is right now.

There's not one single doubt that Joe Burrow is the real deal - the second-year QB is 25 but is a baby-faced killer and shows a maturity and poise that teams crave in their franchise QB.

He's come back from a dreadful knee injury but hardly skipped a beat and he'll have this side as play-off regulars for years to come.

Cincy won their first play-off game in 30 years last week, but this team has no scar tissue from those years of hurt and all the swagger of a side who feel they belong here.

Ja'Marr Chase broke the rookie receiving record this season (1,455 yards) and had nine grabs for 116 yards last week - his sixth 100-yard game of the year.

With Chase and Tee Higgins, Burrow should be able to get his yards and there's every chance that he can put together a run of big plays to get the job done, but Joe Mixon will have a hard time running it against this Titans defence and the Bengals had a tough time scoring on the Raiders, an inferior side, last week.

Throw in some key injury worries on the Bengals defence and the number of sacks Burrow has taken this season and the Bengals are rightly just underdogs in this underdog match-up, but right off these big-lay merchants at your peril.

Bengals @ Titans key stats

  • Derrick Henry had 937 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in eight games this season. He the only player in the league with at least 10 rushing touchdowns in each of the past four seasons.
  • Henry led the league with 117.1 rushing yards per game and is just the third player since 1970 to lead the NFL in rushing yards per game in three straight seasons.
  • In the play-offs, Henry has 758 scrimmage yards (670 rushing, 88 receiving) and three rushing touchdowns, with his 111.7 rushing yards per game the second-most since 1970. His three games of 150-plsu rushing yards as also the second-most even behind only Terrell Davis.
  • Tennessee are the first team to earn the top seed without a 1,000-yard rusher or 1,000-yard receiver since the 2017 Super Bowl winners the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, three of the last four teams to do it have won the Super Bowl, including the 2003 New England Patriots and 1996 Green Bay Packers.
  • Ryan Tannehill will make his fifth career postseason start. He recorded 3,734 passing yards and 21 touchdown passes in 2021 and is the only quarterback with at least seven rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons.
  • Last week's win was the first in the play-offs for the Bengals since 1991 when they beat the Houston Oilers - who later moved to Tennessee to become the Titans. It's the only previous play-off meeting between the two.
  • Joe Burrow became just the third QB in the last 30 years to complete at least 70% of his passes and have a 100-plus rating in his play-off debut - joining Drew Brees and Kurt Warner in that exclusive club.
  • Ja'Marr Chase's nine receptions for 116 yards broke Cris Collinsworth's team play-off record (107 receiving yards in Super Bowl XVI).

Bengals @ Titans key match-ups

Ryan Tannehill, NFL, Tennessee Titans

We've talked about the main protagonists, and if the Bengals rush defence can't stop Henry and Foreman of the Titans secondary let's Burrow cook then they'll be big deciders, but the x-factor here could be in Tennessee's unheralded passing attack.

Ryan Tannehill is a more than adequate QB on his day, and receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones are monsters when fit - which they haven't been all season really. Brown, Jones and Henry (which sounds like a posh Saville Row tailors) have only played 120 snaps together this season.

When the three are on the field the Titans average seven yards per play and even if Henry isn't at full speed, having such dominant receivers out wide gives the defence a real headache when also trying to account for a solid run game.

Jones scored his first TD pass in Week 18, but Brown stepped up in big games against the Chiefs, 49ers and Colts with three TDs and 433 yards - and added 91 yards against the Bills.

Against a Bengals secondary ranked 20th against the pass then he could be in for a huge day while all eyes are on Henry.

Planet Sport verdict

These two are pretty evenly matched overall, but there are just a few factors that tip it in Tennessee's favour, even if the Bengals should thrill us again with some huge plays.

The Titans have home field advantage, have had an extra week off, are healthier and also have big play-off experience from the last couple of years. Coach Mike Vrable will have his men fired up and an early lead would be something even Joe Burrow would struggle to get back from.

Tennessee have laid some eggs this season but we've only seen them at their best, and at full strength, on a few occasions, and when we have they've been a real handful. If that team turns up then it could be just a step-up too far for Cincy right now.

Prediction: Bengals 20-27 Titans

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