The first Sunday night flex game of the season features a potential Super Bowl 50 matchup, with the Cardinals hosting the Bengals, Arizona is currently a 4.5-point NFL Odds favorite.
Perhaps the movement against Cincinnati stems from the stink of the Bengals' first loss of the season, a listless 10-6 home defeat at the hands of the sub-.500 Houston Texans. In addition, the Bengals have tended to cluster losses during the Andy Dalton era. Despite a stellar 48-24-1 regular-season record since 2011, 14 of those losses have come as part of losing streaks. And that doesn't even include an 0-2-1 stretch from last season, when the Bengals sandwiched in a tie between two defeats. When it rains on the Bengals, it tends to pour.
Still, given Cincinnati's 8-1 record, many might be tempted to react against that line movement and grab the points for the road underdogs. In reality, though, the Cards are still the best value here, even if you would have been better served laying the points when Arizona was a shorter favorite. Even with an additional loss in comparison to Cincinnati, the Cardinals possess a better point differential (+117) than the Bengals (+83). Point differential provides a more accurate view of team strength than mere win-loss record, and only the New England Patriots have outdone the Cardinals in that department.
Digging to a more game-specific level, the Cardinals defense should hold a fairly sizable edge over the Dalton-led offense. Even though Dalton has never really shown significant home-away splits during his career, Arizona is well-equipped to match up against Cincy's deep receiving corps. According to opponent-adjusted DVOA metrics, the Cardinals rank in the top 15 in pass coverage against all types of receivers (No. 1 WR, No. 2 WR, other WRs, TEs and RBs). Much of Dalton's success this season has stemmed from his ability to target other receivers when defenses hone in on A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, but Arizona is the rare defense with enough depth to match the Bengals' offensive arsenal.
That could be troublesome for the Bengals if Arizona shuts down Cincinnati's mediocre rushing attack as expected. On the other hand, Carson Palmer should receive more support from his running backs, as the Bengals have allowed at least 4.0 yards per carry to six of their nine opponents this season. Cincinnati has been relatively good at not allowing big rushing plays—the Bengals have allowed just 10.8 percent of opposing carries to go for over 10 yards, ninth-best in the league—but the combination of Chris Johnson and a now-healthy Andre Ellington should stretch a relatively slow Bengals front.
The game's key battle will boil down to a pair of strength-on-strength matchups between the Cardinals offense and Bengals defense. Behind Bruce Arians' vertically inclined passing scheme, the Cardinals average a league-best 13.5 yards per completion, whereas the Bengals concede just 9.8 yards per completion, the third-best defensive mark. Moreover, Arizona has been uberefficient when its offense smells blood, scoring touchdowns on 63.2 percent of its red-zone possessions (eighth), while Cincinnati has allowed opponents to reach the end zone on just 40 percent of its red-zone possessions (third).
However, with cornerback Adam Jones and defensive end Michael Johnson out, Cincinnati is missing two key components of its pass defense. Jones' absence on the back end could loom particularly large, given the importance of flawless communication in the secondary to pass off Arizona's deep routes. If we assume that the Cards defense can cap the Bengals offensive upside, that leaves Cincinnati's defense with very little margin for error on Sunday night.
Ultimately, it's hard to bet against Arizona at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cards have been money over the past three seasons. Since 2013, Arizona is 13-6-1 against the spread at home, and has lost outright just twice when it's been favored at home. Interestingly, all four Cardinals home losses since 2013 have come against fellow NFC West teams, suggesting that familiarity is an important component of knocking off Arizona in its own building.
Of course, as an AFC team, the Bengals do not enjoy that luxury. Pegging Cincinnati a pretender because of its Monday night flop in Week 10 is an overly simplistic snap judgment. However, at least for one week, don’t expect the Bengals to look like top Super Bowl contenders, as the Cardinals figure to take care of business at home.
NFL Picks: Cardinals -5.5 (-110) at BetOnline