Mullens Takes Over at QB as Vikings Head to Cincy in Big Game for Both Teams; Keys to Beating Bengals

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This Saturday’s game at Cincinnati is a big one for Nick Mullens and the Vikings, who at 7-6 are holding the NFC’s No. 6 seed with a one-game lead on six other teams at 6-7 (including the Buccaneers who are leading the NFC South on tie-breakers). The Vikings also want to stay within two games of Detroit in the NFC North with a win or one game if Minnesota wins and Detroit falls on Saturday night at home against hot Denver.

If Minnesota loses to the 7-6 Bengals — who have won two straight games and are in the AFC playoff hunt — the Vikings still will hold the sixth seed heading back home to face the Lions in Week 16. That is due to the Vikings’ strong 6-3 record in NFC games this season. But a win obviously helps their playoff chances and a loss puts even more pressure on next week’s game against the Lions (which in either event will be a huge game for both teams).

Nick Mullens, Week 15, and The Vikings’ Playoff Push

It’s actually a more important game for the Bengals as they currently rank 10th in the AFC pecking order due to their poor 3-6 record in AFC games and they are tied with five other teams at 7-6.  

Both teams have rallied from poor starts—1-4 for the Vikings and 1-3 for the Bengals—to get back in the playoff race.

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It’s a battle of backup QBs turned starters with Nick Mullens, 5-12 in his career as a starter, getting the call (ahead of Josh Dobbs and Jaren Hall) from Kevin O’Connell. Ex-Vikings practice squad QB Jake Browning starts his fourth game (2-1 so far) since star Joe Burrow was lost for the season with a wrist injury.

Mullens completed three key passes on the game-winning drive in Las Vegas, with the biggest a 20-yarder to Jordan Addison on 3rd-and-6 from the Raiders 42. Mullens finished 9 of 13 for 83 yards in the game.

Browning passed for 354 yards and 275 yards in wins the past two weeks at Jacksonville and at home against Indianapolis. He led the Bengals to 34 points in each victory and has completed 76% of his passes in five appearances this season (he has an impressive passer rating of 110.9, with five TDs and two interceptions and he’s been sacked nine times).

Warm Up to Nick
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The Vikings are expected to have Justin Jefferson back in the lineup (he says he’s OK to play after suffering a chest injury on a big hit last Sunday). But they will be without two starters on offense — right tackle Brian O’Neill and running back Alexander Mattison — who both have sprained ankles. The Vikings will hope to get them back against Detroit next week. Receiver Jalen Nailor also is out (concussion protocol). Right guard Ed Ingram returns after missing last week with a hip injury and left guard Dalton Risner will start despite his sore ankle.

This is a fascinating matchup of two of the NFL’s best young head coaches in O’Connell and Zac Taylor and two of the top defensive coordinators in the Vikings’ Brian Flores and the Bengals’ Lou Anarumo.

Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Bengals:

1. Win the turnover battle: it’s been the formula all season that the Vikings win if they are even or ahead in turnover margin (plus 3 last week against the Raiders). Cincinnati ranks second in the league with a plus 10 turnover ratio with the second fewest giveaways (11) and the sixth-most takeaways (21). The Vikings are minus 5 on the season.

2. Better pass protection for Mullens: both Mullens and Dobbs were under siege by Maxx Crosby and the Raiders last week against the Vikings’ banged up O-line with five sacks and consistent pressure. Trey Hendrickson is the Bengals’ best pass rusher (13.5 sacks) and usually lines up on the right side so he would rush against Christian Darrisaw but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him flip over to the left side to go against David Quessenberry who replaces O’Neill.

could thwart
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Quessenberry will have his hands full with Sam Hubbard (five sacks) or Hendrickson and the Vikings need to give him help on longer drop backs with tight end Josh Oliver as part of a double team as they did on Crosby in the second half of the Raiders game when Quessenberry came in for O’Neill.

Anarumo will dial up plenty of blitzes in an attempt to pressure Mullens and he’ll put Hendrickson on some stunts to try and free him up (just as Flores does with Danielle Hunter).

3. Catch the dang ball and get a big game from J.J.: the Vikings are among the league’s worst in dropped passes this season. There were seven in Las Vegas with K.J. Osborn dropping three passes and T.J. Hockenson dropping a deep ball (that wasn’t an easy catch) to make things even tougher for Dobbs.

The Vikings had issues with drops earlier this season and got better until last week. They have to be better in this area the rest of the season.

Jefferson should be targeted early and often as the potential game-changer whenever he plays. If J.J. is making plays and attracts double coverage as expected, it should open things up for Hockenson, Osborn and Jordan Addison down the field if Mullens has time to find them. The Bengals rank 27th in pass defense but they’ve been better the last two weeks.

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4. Run the ball like last week to balance the offense: The Vikings’ run game has been up and down (27th ranked) and it hurts them to be without Mattison, who was having one of his best games in Las Vegas (66 yards on 10 carries) before his ankle injury. The Bengals are 24th against the rush but held the Colts to 46 yards on the ground last week.

Ty Chandler will have to come up big rushing and receiving in this game and Kene Nwangwu also needs to step up as the No. 2 back this week and make some plays with his speed.

Logan Wilson is an excellent inside linebacker who leads the Bengals with 107 tackles, has three interceptions and three forced fumbles. The Vikings will have to account for him at all times.

5. Stop Mixon and put the heat on Browning: Joe Mixon is a quality back with 768 rushing yards and seven TDs this season. He’s run for three TDs in the last two games. The Vikings run D led by Harrison Phillips has been outstanding (5th ranked).

The Vikings need to control Mixon and any reverses. Edge rushers Hunter (13.5 sacks, third in the league) and D.J. Wonnum (7 sacks) must lead the way in pressuring Browning along with timely blitzes from Josh Metellus, Harrison Smith and the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week — Ivan Pace Jr., who had a sack along with his 13 tackles and an interception in Las Vegas. The Bengals have allowed 33 sacks this season so the Vikings should be able to pressure Browning when he doesn’t get the ball out quick on short passes.

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Browning has been very effective against the blitz (128 rating) so it will be interesting to see how much DC Brian Flores blitzes the first year starter vs. threatening to blitz and dropping more defenders into coverage.

6. Secondary cover an excellent wide receiver trio and running backs out of the backfield: If Browning has time to throw, it will be a major challenge for the Vikings corners and safeties to contain one of the league’s best wide receiver trios in Pro Bowler Ja’Marr Chase (Jefferson’s college teammate at LSU who has 89 catches for 1,092 yards and 7 TDs and he says he’ll play despite an ankle problem), Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd.

The Bengals like to throw a lot of quick wide receiver screens and hit their backs in the screen game and on swing passes. Mixon has 42 catches for 327 yards and speedy rookie running back Chase Brown had a 54-yard TD on a swing pass last week.

7. Special teams contributions: the Vikings need to win the special teams battle, with Greg Joseph kicking well (not missing inside 50 yards as he did on the 49-yarder last week) and Ryan Wright had one of his better games against the Raiders after struggling vs. the Bears.

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Evan McPherson is a clutch kicker with a big leg who kicked the overtime game-winner on the Vikings’ last trip to Cincinnati in the 2021 season opener (the game that launched the Bengals on a season that ended in the Super Bowl with the loss to the Rams). McPherson is perfect inside 50 this season but is 7 of 12 from beyond 50 yards.

Charlie Jones is a dangerous punt returner for the Bengals who had an 81-yard TD return in Week 2 against Baltimore.

 Jeff’s Pick:

The Vikings enter the game with one of the league’s best road records at 5-2 and the Bengals are only 4-3 at home this season.

O’Connell and Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor have done great jobs leading their teams after they lost Pro Bowl QBs in Cousins and Burrow. I think it’s interesting that O’Connell named Mullens the starter on Tuesday instead of waiting until game day in order to keep the Bengals guessing. But their excellent DC Anarumo will prepare for both Mullens and Dobbs just in case The Passtronaut is called upon.

The Bengals have been a final four team the past two seasons and know how to turn it on at crunch time which they need to do in a jam-packed AFC playoff race.

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The Vikings injury issues on the offensive line are a big concern with Mullens in his first Vikings start but he did get the ball out under pressure against the Raiders. Can the Vikings run well enough to set up play action and then can Mullens make big plays with Jefferson, Addison, and Hockenson? And can Flores make it difficult for Browning to get in rhythm in the passing game and the D force turnovers while the run D continues to shine? I think this will be a tough game for the Vikings corners against Chase and Higgins.

The Bengals are the healthier team. I have a hard time seeing the Vikings scoring enough points to win this game even though the Minnesota D has given up the fewest points in the league since Week 6 (15 per game). I predict Cincinnati wins 24-21 in another one-score game decided by a late McPherson field goal (as was the case in 2021). But a big game by the Vikings D and Jefferson could turn this the Vikings’ way. Maybe J.J. can repeat his magic from Buffalo last season.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. The Vikings’ NFC North rivals all have interesting matchups this weekend. On Saturday night, the Lions will be coming off their disappointing loss in Chicago and host the hot Broncos who have won six of their last seven games. The Packers were upset by the Giants in the Meadowlands and face a Buccaneers team at Lambeau that took over first place in the weak NFC South with a win at Atlanta.

Meanwhile the surging Bears (now 5-8) go to 8-5 Cleveland with Justin Fields on a roll as he continues his late-season audition to keep his starting job (as opposed to the Bears drafting a QB first overall with the Carolina pick in the Bryce Young trade). Fields will be going against the league’s top-ranked defense and Joe Flacco is at the helm with the Browns and had a great game last week in a win over the Jaguars (311 passing yards and three TDs).

The Vikings would love to see all of their divisional rivals get beat to help the Purple’s playoff chances. I’ll pick the home teams—Detroit, Green Bay and Cleveland– but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lions and Packers get beat as I thought was possible last week and did turn out to be the case.

2. The other big games this weekend: 10-3 Dallas at 7-6 Buffalo (I like the Bills led by Josh Allen to win and stay in the AFC playoff race); 10-3 Baltimore tries to hold the top AFC seed at 8-5 Jacksonville on Sunday night and I like the Ravens in this game; and the 10-3 Eagles are at 6-7 Seattle on Monday night as Philly tries to end their two-game losing skid (albeit to NFC powers San Francisco and Dallas but the Eagles were soundly beaten in both games). The Vikings would be happy to see Philly extend the Seahawks’ losing streak to five games to knock them further down in the NFC wild card chase.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl