Vikings and Bengals will try to stay in the playoff picture when the 7-6 teams face off Saturday

Thu, Dec 14, 2023
NFL News (AP)

Vikings and Bengals will try to stay in the playoff picture when the 7-6 teams face off Saturday

CINCINNATI (AP) - The winner of Saturday's game between the Vikings and Bengals will stay in the crowded playoff picture - at least for now. The loser could be in trouble.

The matchup of the 7-6 teams - both relying on backup quarterbacks to get them to the playoffs - is as close to a must-win as either has played this season.

The Bengals are in the middle of a crowd of six AFC teams with 7-6 records. A loss to Minnesota would leave their postseason aspirations in tough shape.

"Yeah, this is a big one that we really need," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "I'm sure that (the Vikings) feel the exact same way. It's just really the way the league is set up this year. It's interesting for the fans, it keeps everybody involved, and everyone's got a lot to play for. And I think ultimately, we're in a position - I think Minnesota is in a position - to where you keep controlling what you can control, and good things will happen."

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The Vikings have a one-game lead over a pack of NFC teams that are 6-7 going into the weekend. They play the AFC North-leading Lions (9-2) in the two of their last three games.

"You don't really know who's going to be the last man standing in our division, so that keeps the juices flowing, especially with these games that we have left," Minnesota receiver Justin Jefferson said. "It's exciting. Definitely ready to get out there and perform."

Cincinnati was all but written off when franchise quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending wrist injury Nov. 16.

But backup Jake Browning - a former practice squad QB - has been exceptional in leading the Bengals to wins over the AFC South-leading Jaguars and the Colts in the past two weeks.

"He's continued just to show confidence and allowed us to have confidence and the team to have confidence with just how he's prepared and carried himself," Taylor said.

Minnesota is a little less settled at quarterback.

Journeyman Nick Mullens is set to start Saturday after relieving an ineffective Joshua Dobbs last week and helping lead the Vikings to a 3-0 victory at Las Vegas, snapping a two-game skid.

Mullens is the fourth different starter for the Vikings, who lost Kirk Cousins to an injury Oct. 29. Rookie Jaren Hall and Dobbs, who arrived in an emergency trade with Arizona after Cousins was hurt, also have started games.

JEFFERSON'S RETURN, TAKE TWO

The Vikings welcomed Jefferson back last week from a hamstring injury that cost him seven games, only to see him sidelined in the second quarter from a hard hit to the chest that was concerning enough to send him to the hospital for further evaluation. He checked out fine and plans to play without restriction against the Bengals.

"I felt like a kid again, just being out there on that field," Jefferson said. "I wasn't going to be on that field without being 100%, so my hamstring was definitely 100 and feeling very, very good."

JAKE STEPS UP

In a season that has seen backup quarterbacks pressed into service because of a rash of injuries to starters, Browning has stood out.

He didn't take his first regular-season snaps until this season, but the 27-year-old has looked just as cool on the field as Burrow.

If Browning is uncomfortable with anything, it's the increased media attention that comes with being QB1.

"I guess that was part of the job that I really never experienced, and I think that's been an adjustment," Browning said.

"I think if you have all these different opinions about a bunch of different stuff, you can create a lot of clutter. I like focusing on like one or two things very in-depth, and kind of the rest of stuff - right or wrong - I just I don't really care a ton."

BETTER DEFENSE

The Cincinnati defense, statistically still among the worst in the league, has been much improved in the past few weeks, especially in stopping the run. The Jaguars had 71 rushing yards against Cincinnati, and the Colts were held to just 46 last week. Both averaged fewer than 3 yards per carry.

The Colts had just one offensive touchdown, and the Bengals had three sacks, including two by defensive end Trey Hendrickson. The Bengals' plus-10 turnover differential is tied for second best in the league.

PROTECTION PLAN

The Vikings lost right tackle Brian O'Neill to a sprained ankle during the game last week against the Raiders, who had five sacks - including two by star edge rusher Maxx Crosby. O'Neill is out for Saturday.

"We're banged up that room. We're banged up in a lot of areas," said left guard Dalton Risner, who is dealing with an ankle injury that briefly sidelined him against the Raiders. "It's also the middle of December, man. That's what happens. We've got to be able to play our best ball when it counts, which is now. So we've got to find a way."

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AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell contributed.

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