The Cincinnati Bengals play their home finale Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, looking to end a five-game losing streak and slide back into the AFC North Division chase.
Oakland (3-10) is coming off a win over the slumping Pittsburgh Steelers last week but has experienced its share of lows this season, and the Bengals are hoping to capitalize on an opportunity to finish strong with two division games left.
The Raiders lead the all-time series 20-10 but Cincinnati has won three of the last four, including two straight, and eight of 14 at home.
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Here are five storylines to watch for in Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium:
1. History is on Bengals’ side
No matter what the Bengals’ record has been over the last decade, they almost always seem to win their home finale. They have won their last six home finales, including beating the Lions 26-17 last year and the Ravens 27-10 in 2016 with losing records.
“We always want to win for our fans, but it would be a big deal especially in our last home game,” linebacker Vinny Rey said.
Cincinnati ost the home finale in 2011 but won the four home finales before that, including beating the Chargers 34-20 in 2010 to knock them out of the postseason picture and finish 4-12.
If this ends up being Marvin Lewis’ final home game, as some project, it also would be of note to finish with a win. In Dick LeBeau’s last home game in 2002 before Lewis was hired, the 1-13 Bengals beat the Saints 20-13. New Orleans was 9-5 and only needed one win to make the playoffs.
2. More improvement for offense
Running back Joe Mixon finally got the number of carries he thinks he can handle every game last week when he rushed 26 times for 111 yards and a touchdown, and Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor would like to keep that up the rest of the season.
That was the biggest area of improvement last week, but now Lazor would like to also see Jeff Driskel take a step forward with the passing game.
“I thought he got better,” Lazor said of Driskel’s performance last week in a 26-21 loss against the Chargers. “I think as a group, we really are struggling. If anything the statistic, the No. 1 stat in football is yards per attempt passing. We were 5.0 last game. That’s not just Jeff. In general, maybe some of it is the play calls, maybe some of it is the protection, maybe some of it’s the route running, some of it’s the quarterbacking and it’s been a little bit of a trend, so we’ve got to get that going again. If you look at one thing offensively that held us back in this game, it was not making enough plays in the passing game.”
Driskel’s yards per pass attempt average is 6.4 this season, as he has relied on short passes in his six appearances, including two starts since replacing injured Andy Dalton.
The Raiders shut down Pittsburgh’s run last week but Mixon said that was more a product of the Steelers not having James Conner.
3. Nearing milestones
If the offense gets going again, the Bengals could see two players reach the 1,000-yard mark in separate categories.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd needs just 10 yards to reach 1,000 yards receiving, and Mixon is at 866 yards rushing. It’s more likely Boyd gets his milestone Sunday, and that would be especially meaningful for him after finishing with just 225 yards last year. He caught 54 passes for 603 yards as a rookie in 2016.
“You go hard and you are doing the things you need to do, the stats will come,” Mixon said. “It’s going to come with that. Tyler has been having a great season. To me, he is one of the best receivers in the league, and he’s definitely one of the best slot receivers in the league and he’s undervalued but the more he starts getting the ball and the more he does, the more people start noticing. Tyler does a great job and he’s going to get 1,000 yards this game, and I can’t wait to be there to witness that. It’s a great accomplishment for him, and I’m definitely happy for him.”
4. Finding the pass rush
Only two teams have allowed more sacks than the Raiders this season, so this could be a good opportunity for the Bengals to find the pass rush they expected to thrive on this season. Oakland has two rookie tackles.
The Bengals rank 25th in the league in sacks with 28 despite having two elite pass rushers in Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Most of Oakland’s offense comes through Derek Carr’s passing game, and the Raiders have allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 43 times this season.
Cincinnati took steps as a defense last week in limiting Phillip Rivers to one of his worst games this season. It was arguably the best game the Bengals have played defensively, so Marvin Lewis will look for continued improvement against a struggling Oakland team.
5. Shuffling the offensive line
The Bengals offensive line did a lot of shuffling last week with left tackle Cordy Glenn still out and Clint Boling still filling his spot. Trey Hopkins had played left guard the previous game but Christian Westerman got in for 63 percent of the snaps, and Lazor said the rotation is just a matter of trying to find the best combinations.
The changes with the line and continued adjustment with Driskel could be playing an impact on the false start penalties, which Lazor called “embarrassing” for this level of football.
Glenn returned to practice in limited fashion this week but is questionable. The Raiders rank last with 11 sacks.