When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans TV: CBS
Drew Brees was critical of himself after turning the ball over three times in the New Orleans Saints' 27-24 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. But that's nothing compared to what Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton went through.
Dalton had a passer rating of 2.0 in the Bengals' 24-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, completing just 10 of 33 passes with three interceptions.
Both quarterbacks -- and their teams -- will be craving a bounce-back victory.
ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey discuss the matchup:
Triplett: I got a rare chance to watch the Bengals last week, and it obviously wasn't pretty. But they bounced back after their two previous ugly losses this season. Do you expect the same this week -- especially from Dalton?
Harvey: Honestly, Mike, I'm not sure what Dalton or Bengals team to expect this week. This team is grossly inconsistent; it could either rout the Saints or get shut out. You rightfully noted that they played well after their first two losses this year -- but something about this loss felt different from the others. For starters, it was at home, and the Bengals had been nothing but solid there in the regular season stretching back to the end of the 2012 season. Until Nov. 6, they hadn't lost a regular-season game at Paul Brown Stadium in 14 tries.
This will be the first time they've headed on the road after a loss this year, and as you know, they're going to a venue that isn't easy to play as a visitor. I expect Dalton to improve off last week's game in which he had a 4.3 QBR -- the only place to go from there is up, right? But will he be enough for the team to get back on track? I'm not sure.
It seems like consistency has been the Saints' issue, as well, in this see-saw season. What must New Orleans start doing in order to rattle off a series of wins?
Triplett: In a sense, the Saints have actually been consistent since they keep losing in the same way: turning the ball over too much and breaking down on defense in the final minutes. They've been leading four of their five losses with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. But they keep allowing big plays like the 51-yard pass on fourth-and-10 that they gave up to San Francisco.
The offense is close to its usual prolific self, ranking in the top six in the league in total yards, passing, rushing and points. And Brees is still sharp in every category but one -- turnovers. He has thrown 10 interceptions and lost two fumbles, many of them very costly, and he has bluntly admitted he needs to be better.
It's still a pick-your-poison offense, though, with a lot of tough matchups, starting with tight end Jimmy Graham. I know the Bengals have struggled against tight ends all year. Will they have an answer for Graham and the rest of the Saints' weapons, like running back Mark Ingram and receiver Brandin Cooks?
Harvey: Given the headaches tight ends -- namely Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen and Dwayne Allen -- have provided, I will be quite interested to see how well they cover Graham. Most likely, nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur will draw that assignment. After getting 10 days off between games, his banged-up left shoulder should be at its healthiest point in the last four weeks. He also should have help at linebacker as Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga might be returning from injuries. If those two can play consistently in this game, perhaps the Bengals' defense will finally have two things it has been lacking all year: rhythm and effective communication. Those additions also should bolster Cincinnati's pass rush, making it tougher for the Saints to get the ball to Graham, Cooks and others.
The area to really watch, though, is how well the Bengals do versus the run. Ingram has been sharp the last three weeks, and that could be problematic for the league's second-worst rushing defense. If the run opens, the pass will surely follow. What has been working so well for Ingram and the Saints the last three weeks?
Triplett: Ingram has exploded with three straight 100-yard games after having just one previously in his career. He has been taking advantage of improved health and the opportunity to finally be a featured back while Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas are nursing injuries.
But as great as Ingram has been, it hasn't just been him. The Saints' entire run game started to come around late last season, with all three of those backs thriving. The Saints finally started to get comfortable with a new line coach and blocking scheme. And just as importantly, coach Sean Payton has shown more confidence in the run game than ever, sticking with it even when trailing in games. Ingram's averaging 27 carries over the past three games. That's almost unheard of around here.
Speaking of running backs, LSU fans down here know Jeremy Hill quite well. What's been working for him, and do you expect to see a lot of him Sunday?
Harvey: It's still a little early to fully say whether Giovani Bernard will end up playing this week. He missed the past two games with multiple injuries. If he does come back, that will eat into Hill's workload slightly. While the Bengals like to think they have a true running back rotation, Bernard still is viewed as the starter ahead of Hill.
Regardless of whether Bernard is healthy, the Saints must game plan for Hill, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He's a strong, physical runner with shifty moves who had a big day against the Jaguars two weeks ago, rushing for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He could have been strong last week, too, had the Bengals not abandoned the run so early.
Opposing quarterbacks -- specifically, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford -- have torched the Saints at times this season. How can New Orleans best prevent Dalton from having a rebound game?
Triplett: The Saints' secondary has been hit or miss all year, often in the same game. They actually shut down Stafford for 56 minutes before totally breaking down on a dump-off pass that turned into a 73-yard touchdown to Golden Tate in Week 7 (similar to what happened against Colin Kaepernick last week). On the flip side, with Rodgers in Week 8, his 70-yard TD came on the opening series before the Saints settled in and picked him off twice in what turned into a blowout win for New Orleans.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis' status will be huge this week as he tries to come back from a knee injury. The former Pittsburgh Steeler has become a bona fide No. 1 corner and would shadow A.J. Green. The rest of the defensive backs are all up and down. They've all been helped greatly, though, now that the Saints' pass rush has finally started to show up with 16 sacks over the past 17 quarters. That's the strength of the defense, led by pass-rushers Cam Jordan and Junior Galette.