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Bengals at 49ers: Five Things to Watch

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Posted at 9:53 PM, Dec 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-20 02:19:59-05

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – As luck would have it, the 49ers are honoring their Super Bowl champions from the 1981 and 1988 seasons when they host the Bengals on Sunday.

Those are the teams that beat the Bengals in Super Bowls XVI and XXIII. But unless Joe Montana and Jerry Rice suit up, it should be the Bengals' turn to win a trophy.

There's a good reason the NFL reverse-flexed the Bengals and 49ers, dropping them from prime time into a 4:25 p.m. ET slot.

Nobody wants to watch the 4-and-9-ers. How bad are they? Nine-rs sacks allowed last week, couldn't score a TD until the final two minutes and surrendered Cleveland's first win in eight weeks.

No, these are not the same 49ers who went to the Super Bowl three seasons ago. With Blaine Gabbert at QB the past five games, they have scored more than 17 points just once. They are dead last in the NFL in scoring (14.5 ppg) compared to the Bengals'  fourth (27.2) and 19th in scoring defense (24.2) compared to the Bengals' second (17.6).

Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Bengals favored by 6 Saturday night even though backup QB AJ McCarron is making his first NFL start and they're on the West Coast.

The Bengals are playing to clinch a division title, and that should be motivation enough for everybody - especially the running game and defense - to step up.

SEE the Bengals' playoff possibilities.

If McCarron avoids picks (he threw two TD passes in relief against the Steelers last week but he also threw two interceptions), they should come home with the AFC North title.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH:

RUN IT: The Bengals managed only 64 yards rushing against the Steelers, putting pressure on McCarron to throw a lot. Jeremy Hill had only 16 yards on seven carries  - 12 on one play, which means he got stuffed on his other six runs. The Browns ran for 230 yards against the 49ers, something the Bengals would like to emulate with a fresh-faced quarterback.

"I think it's huge," said Hill, who hasn't run for 100 yards in a game this season. "This time around hopefully we can dictate the tempo of the game and get some play-action and get some run game going and make his job a lot easier."

STAY COOL: The Bengals lost their cool against the Steelers, getting involved in a skirmish at midfield during pregame warm-ups. It carried over into a penalty-filled game and played to Pittsburgh's advantage in the 33-20 victory. Cincinnati gave up more than 10 points for only the second time in the last seven games.

"I feel like emotions kind of weighed over what we should have been doing," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the second play. "Just got to learn to control our emotions a little bit better."

NINER PRIDE? Will the 49ers mail this one in, or were they embarrassed enough by last week's loss to take it to the Bengals? LB Ahmad Brooks suggested his team might have been "big-headed" in the 24-10 defeat at Cleveland. So what do they have to play for this week?

"Just pride," tackle Joe Staley said. "Everybody has to have the same mindset in playing for one another — not get in a position where you're trying just to take care of yourself. I think that's kind of human nature for everybody in this situation. The season didn't go the way we wanted it to, so make sure you take care of yourself and I don't think that's really the correct way."

PROTECTING GABBERT: Nine sacks were a team record even if Gabbert caused three of them himself by running out of bounds.

"Nine sacks is unacceptable," said left guard Alex Boone, who will miss Sunday's game with a sprained MCL in his right knee and might be done for the year.

"I think it was an offensive thing. I think a lot of people are obviously going to think the offensive line sucks, but at the end of the day when you watch the film, there's 11 guys out there playing and everybody's responsible to do their job."

Gabbert took his share of the blame, noting, "That game summed up that 11 guys need to be on the same page."

DEFENSIVE DOINGS: San Francisco's front seven met Wednesday as a unit and held an open discussion about the mistakes and timing issues the 49ers had last week.

The 49ers gave up 481 yards to the 3-10 Browns.  

"Last game we were out of position a lot of the times and that's why they had so many yards," Brooks said. "It was one particular play they had in the game where it looked like he couldn't get through the gap but he squirted through the gap somehow, some way. It was just little things like that we need to correct."