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Why the Cincinnati Bengals may struggle against the Arizona Cardinals

The Cincinnati Bengals look to rebound after their first loss. On Sunday, the Bengals meet the formidable Arizona Cardinals at home on Sunday Night Football.

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Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu breaks up a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Seattle.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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The Cincinnati Bengals' loss to the Houston Texans this past week is a reminder that football can be difficult to predict.

The undefeated Bengals were a huge favorite going into the Monday Night Football showdown with the Texans, but they lost 10-6 in a match in which the offense struggled to generate any points. 

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Up until this past Monday, the Bengals were untouchable, winning their previous eight games and winning on both sides of the ball.

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While the loss uncovered some of the limitations of the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton is still having his best season as a pro. The fifth year quarterback is on pace to set career highs in quarterback rating, QBR and yards per game. He is also turning the ball over less, throwing interceptions only 1.7 percent of the time and has been more effective at spreading the ball to players not named A.J. Green..

Dalton’s favorite target around the end zone has been Tyler Eifert, who is emerging as a star tight end this season. The third-year player has caught nine touchdowns, best in the league, and racked up 460 yards this season. Eifert had a Monday to forget, however dropping several passes while reeling in only three of seven targets. Eifert told ESPN that his ability to rebound from difficult games comes from the lessons he learned while playing with ex-Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham.

"He came in here and we were always having fun," Eifert told ESPN as he reflected on his former teammate. "Good game, bad game, whatever, he always kept it light. Which, for me as a rookie, you're like, 'Oh my gosh. I'm in the NFL now, and this is so serious.' Meetings were so serious and long, and he always kept it light. It can be a grind, and it's good to keep that attitude throughout the year."

The Bengals will need Eifert, Dalton, and the rest of the offense to collectively rebound this Sunday as they face an aggressive Cardinals defense. Arizona (7-2) ranks 6th in the NFL in efficiency according to Football Outsiders DVOA metric, which measures the effectiveness of a defense against the mean according to how and when yards and points are accumulated.

What makes the Cardinals' defense special is their aggressiveness around the ball and their knack for creating big plays and turnovers. The secondary, led by Patrick Peterson, is tied for first in the NFL in interceptions with 14 and they turn those interceptions into good field position for the offense. Six of the picks have also come with 20-plus yard returns and two have turned into touchdowns.

Tyrann Mathieu is a player that fans should key in on this Sunday. The nickel cornerback blends speed and power into his small frame and can turn a game on its head in the blink of an eye. His 12 pass defenses lead the team, and he has contributed a sack, three interceptions, a forced fumble, and a touchdown already this season.

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If Arizona can bottle up Cincinnati’s run game early on, Dalton and the Bengals will struggle again on offense as they predominantly pass against a strong secondary and pass rush. Arizona has the offense humming under QB Carson Palmer and the Bengals defense will have their hands full trying to contain both the run and pass attack. Look for Cincinnati to drop their second in a row this week as they find the Cardinals too much to handle on Sunday Night Football.