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5 things to watch for in Bengals game vs. Lions

Cincinnati Bengals fans will be hoping for a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past on Sunday when the team plays host to the Detroit Lions at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals are 3-1 when playing at home on Christmas eve. And they are 14-4 in their last 18 home finales, including 8-0 when they don’t have any playoff hopes on the line.

That will be the case again as the Bengals sit at 5-9 after losing three in a row. But the Lions (8-6) have plenty to play for as they try to qualify for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1994-95.

Here are 5 things to watch for in the game:

Marvin’s PBS farewell

Given that the playoffs are out of reach and the game is on Christmas eve, there might be more empty seats than occupied ones inside Paul Brown Stadium.

But if fans who are passionate enough to show up for a meaningless tilt are more inclined to express themselves vocally.

It will be interesting to see what type of reaction head coach Marvin Lewis receives – particularly when running off the field at halftime and at the end of the game – in wake of last week’s report that he intends to step away from the team at the end of the season.

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Here’s a look at how the eight prior Bengals head coaches fared in their final home games:

2002: Dick LeBeau led the 1-13 Bengals to a 20-13 upset of the New Orleans Saints, who at 9-5 were seven-point favorites and in position to clinch a playoff berth with a victory.

2000: Bruce Coslet’s first game at Paul Brown Stadium was his last as the team dropped a 24-7 decision to Cleveland in the season opener. Two weeks later Coslet resigned.

1996: Dave Shula watched the Bengals blow a 10-point lead in the second half before falling to the Houston Oilers 30-27 in overtime to fall to 1-4. Two weeks later he was fired.

1991: Sam Wyche led the Bengals to a 29-7 victory against New England to cap a 3-13 season. Two days later he was either fired or resigned, depending on whom you ask.

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1983: Forrest Gregg guided the Bengals to a 17-9 victory against Detroit as they improved to 7-8. Following a loss at Minnesota the following week, Gregg resigned to become the head coach at Green Bay.

1979: Homer Rice’s brief tenure ended with a 16-12 victory against Cleveland in the season finale to cap a 4-12 campaign.

1978: Bill “Tiger” Johnson watched his Bengals blow an eight-point fourth quarter lead against New Orleans to fall to 0-4. He resigned a week later.

1975: Paul Brown guided the Bengals to a 47-17 thrashing of San Diego to cap an 11-3 season and a wild-card berth.

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Line dance

While shuffling offensive linemen may be akin to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic in this sinking season, the Bengals have no choice with starting right tackle Andre Smith on Injured Reserve and starting left tackle Cedric Ogbeuhi ruled out for the game with a shoulder injury.

The only other true tackle on the roster who has ever played an NFL snap is Eric Winston, an 11-year veteran the team signed off the street last month merely as injury insurance.

Look for left guard Clint Boling to slide out to left tackle, while Winston handles the duties on the right side.

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Center Russell Bodine and right guard Trey Hopkins should stay put, although Hopkins could kick out to tackle if Winston struggles. And Christian Westerman, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2016 who has yet to appear in a game, and 2016 college free agent Alex Redmond are expected to split time at left guard.

The offensive line has been one of the biggest issues facing the team this season, so this patchwork effort could make it difficult for the offense to move the ball, although neither Lewis nor quarterback Andy Dalton seemed interested in talking about it.

“We’re going to run our offense and do things the way we’ve done them,” Dalton said. “It doesn’t matter who is out there, everybody is expected to get their job done.”

Added Lewis, “We just have to do it. It’s what you do.”

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Triple 30

Two weeks ago the Bengals went into the game against Chicago having not allowed an opponent to score 30 points in 22 consecutive games, which was the longest active streak in the NFL.

But after giving up 33 to the Bears, the Bengals defense came back the following Sunday and surrendered 34 to Minnesota.

It’s the first time since 2014 (37-37 tie vs. Carolina and 43-17 loss at New England in Weeks 5-6) the Bengals have allowed at least 30 points in back-to-back games.

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It Detroit gets to the mark Sunday, the Bengals will tie the franchise record of allowing at least 30 points in three straight games, something that has happened six other times with the most recent coming in Weeks 7-9 in 1999 (37-20 loss at Seattle, 41-10 loss vs. Jacksonville, 31-10 loss at Indianapolis).

Bottoms up

Striving to not finish last sets a pretty low bar, but when you’re ranked 32nd in total offense with two weeks to play, it’s a worthy goal.

“You don’t want to be last at anything,” Dalton said. “We’ve got to get better.”

The Bengals are averaging 268.9 yards per game, and that have a long way to catch No. 31 Indianapolis at 286.2

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Cincinnati would need to out-gain the Colts by 242 yards over the final two games (or No. 30 Chicago by 375 or No. 29 Buffalo by 439) to avoid finishing 32nd.

The only other time the Bengals finished last in total offense was 2008, when they averaged 245.4 yards per game.

Draft stock

If the season ended after Week 15, the Bengals would have owned the No. 8 pick in the draft, one spot higher than where they selected wide receiver John Ross in April.

If the Bengals lose their final two games, the highest they could pick would be third, which would involve the Colts winning their final two games (at Baltimore on Saturday and vs. Houston on Dec. 31) and each of the following teams winning at least once: Houston (vs. Pittsburgh, at Indianapolis), San Francisco (vs. Jacksonville, at LA Rams), Chicago (vs. Cleveland, at Minnesota) and Tampa Bay (at Carolina, vs. New Orleans).

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The tiebreaker for draft order is strength of schedule, with the weakest picking ahead of the strongest. The Bengals currently rank 30th with their opponents’ composite record of 81-101. That means they should “win” the tiebreaker and pick ahead of any of the above teams who might finish with the same record.

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