Since opening the season 3-0, the Cincinnati Bengals have been unable to find any sort of consistency. Maybe a change of scenery can help, but they’re heading to a city where no visitor had won since 2012 – until last week.
As the New Orleans Saints look to regroup from a rare home loss, the Bengals try to avoid another blowout on the road Sunday.
The Bengals (5-3-1) hadn’t lost in their previous 14 regular-season home games before being embarrassed last Thursday in a 24-3 defeat to Cleveland, amassing only 165 total yards. Andy Dalton headed the futility with the worst game of his career, completing 10 of 33 passes for 86 yards and three interceptions.
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The results were similar in Cincinnati’s last two road games, falling at Indianapolis and New England by a combined 70-17 score.
"We’ve got to find a way to be consistent," Dalton said. "We haven’t been in the losses. I think that’s what it comes down to. Every week we have to come to play. We have to find a way to do that."
Dalton’s 2.0 passer rating last week ranked as the fifth-worst all-time for a quarterback with 30 or more attempts, marking the low point in an already disappointing campaign. He’s the NFL’s 29th-rated passer after signing a six-year, $115 million contract in August.
Until this season, Dalton’s yardage and touchdowns had steadily risen each year since entering the league in 2011. But he’s on pace to throw for 800 fewer yards than last year and under 20 touchdowns for the first time in his career.
The Bengals still own second place in the AFC North behind Cleveland’s 6-3 mark.
The Saints (4-5) lead the woeful NFC South despite having a worse record and also struggling to be consistent.
A 2-4 start preceded back-to-back wins to close October, easily defeating Green Bay and Carolina. They failed to stay hot last Sunday despite being at home, where they had been 11-0 since the start of last season, and lost 27-24 to San Francisco in overtime.
"I thought we had kind of gotten over the hump but we’re right back here, so we’re going to have to do whatever it takes to win these close ones," tight end Jimmy Graham told the Saints’ official website. "That’s the difference between us being a great team, and us just being a mediocre team."
The Saints fell victim to the same two problems that have thwarted them all season – a lack of timely defense and turnovers.
New Orleans suffered a defensive breakdown in the fourth quarter, allowing San Francisco to convert a critical fourth down with under two minutes remaining and eventually tie the game. Late in overtime, Drew Brees fumbled deep in New Orleans territory, leading to San Francisco’s game-winning field goal.
The Saints have blown a fourth-quarter lead in four of their five losses, and they rank among the worst in the NFL with 18 turnovers.
"Something’s got to get fixed," Brees said. "I’m not happy about it. I can’t turn the ball over at the rate I’m turning it over and I can’t turn it over in the situations that I’m turning it over. I’m aware of that."
Brees has thrown 10 interceptions, two shy of his total from 2013.
Despite their issues, the Saints still tout the potent offense the franchise has become known for under Brees. New Orleans is second in the league with 435.0 total yards per game and ranks third in passing at 304.8.
That attack will look to take advantage of a diminished Cincinnati front seven. Vontaze Burfict, who underwent knee surgery Oct. 29, is unlikely to play, and it’s uncertain if fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee) will return after missing four games for a Bengals defense that has depreciated into one of the NFL’s worst (391.9 yards per game).
It would seem Giovani Bernard’s absence on offense hasn’t helped, but rookie Jeremy Hill has stepped in the last two games to rush for 209 yards and 5.8 per carry. Bernard, who has 625 yards from scrimmage in seven games and leads the Bengals with five touchdowns, has been out with a hip injury and did not practice Wednesday.
Hill could start for a third consecutive week, and it appears A.J. Green definitely will. He missed three games with a foot injury and has yet to regain his Pro Bowl form in two games since returning, totaling six catches for 67 yards and one touchdown.
Mohamed Sanu developed into a true weapon with Green sidelined, tallying the 10th-most receiving yards in the NFL over the past five weeks. But like the rest of the Bengals, Sanu went cold last Thursday with only two receptions.
"We don’t have to turn anything, but turn ourselves, and right the ship, and go get ready to play in New Orleans this next coming Sunday," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We’ve got to go back and play football our way. We lost the football game. We didn’t fall off a cliff."
The Bengals are 3-2 all-time in New Orleans but haven’t played there since 2006. Brees threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns as the Saints won the most recent meeting, 34-30 in Cincinnati in 2010.