Paul Brown Stadium sits in the crosshairs of Tuesday's presidential election like everything else in Ohio, but on Sunday against the Broncos (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) it turns into the Bengals' own battleground state in their season's tipping point.
At 3-4 and facing the revived and reconstructed Peyton Manning, the Bengals are getting no love from the pundits. Like "The New Nixon" in 1968, Manning is the favorite of the Bengals.com media roundtable in the midst of one of the hottest streaks of his Hall of Fame career that includes five straight 300-yard games while leading his team to three wins in the last four games.
Manning going to the line of scrimmage in his no-huddle offense and draining the play clock of every mismatch is symbolic of Cincinnati's plight against the shrinking time it faces in putting together a playoff run.
The lone wolf is John Clayton, ESPN's professor who has been lecturing about the AFC West for three decades. He calls it "a tossup game," and says the Bengals still have a chance to get out of the muck that is the AFC.
Bill Williamson, the AFC West blogger for ESPN.com who used to cover the Broncos for years in Denver, was sitting in the press box that Christmas Eve in 2006 when he got out of his seat to stretch before overtime and sat back down with a thud as the extra-point snap sailed and took the Bengals playoff hopes with it.
He doesn't see this one as close with Manning not only playing at such a high level but also his skill players and calls a close but big road victory for Denver.
Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post comes to town 43 years and 16 days after Broncos running back Floyd Little's 166-yard game against the Bengals at Nippert Stadium. Legwold saw every carry even though he may not have been alive yet.
Legwold reached cult status among scribes a few years back when he broke down every carry of Little's career that was on film in presenting his successful case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After inhaling the tape of this game, Legwold gives the edge to Manning's ability to get his offense into the right mismatches.
Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer made his Bengals beat debut in the Spike Strike Game that opened the 2009 season when that wild 87-yard tipped pass with 11 seconds left somehow beat Cincy. He says it won't be that wild this trip and sees Manning taking a knee instead of a miracle at the end.
Let's go around the table.
I always wondered how he would do in a power formation and we're getting a pretty good idea. If you let Manning get to your small (nickel formation) in that running game, he'll use it and he gets the last word in the no-huddle.
This is a better running game than he had in Indy. They're a lot more physical and they're using a lot more two backs. Mike McCoy, the Broncos offensive coordinator does a good job getting teams out of their base or regular defense. They've even used a three wide-receiver, two tight-end, no-back look that gives teams problems.
Just looking at how the Bengals linebackers have been in coverage, it looks they're going to have an issue with the Broncos tight ends, Joel Dreesen and Jacob Tamme. Both guys are big and athletic.
(Broncos cornerback) Champ Bailey on (Bengals wide receiver) A.J. Green is the best matchup. Now that they seem to have everybody back and settled on defense, they're getting ready to do what they did last year and have Champ covering the best receiver. They've already done some of that. The Saints tried to motion Marques Colston some last week but they didn't do it much and a few weeks ago against the Texans when Andre Johnson caught a 60-yarder for a touchdown early, they put Champ on him and he caught one ball the rest of the way. He's 34 or whatever he is, but he can still do it.
You've got to mention (SAM backer) Von Miller. If he's not among the league leaders in tackles for loss, he's leading the league. Other than Champ, he's their impact defensive player. He's a lot better-rounded this year, a lot more comfortable. He understands what teams are trying to do to him, whether it's trying to lure him upfield or whatever it might be.
THE EDGE: Broncos, 31-20. Manning's numbers are ridiculous in the last four games. Amazing. And you can see how much the running game has helped him. It's been a combination. He can obviously still throw it. The teams that have hurt the Broncos were able to run it against them in nickel and dime. The Patriots rushed for something like 140 yards against the nickel. It looks like the Bengals are still trying to get some consistency in the running game.
The Broncos seem to be sensing they can really make a run here. They began the season with the league's second-hardest schedule behind the Giants and now they've got the easiest over the second half. Baltimore is the only team they've got left with a winning record.
Manning is definitely playing at a stunning level. There's no argument. He's better than he was before the surgery if you look at his 2010 numbers. And the thing is that everybody around him has lifted their play in order to keep up.
The defense has a chance to be good. They've got excellent coaching and the linebacker play has improved the past few weeks. They've stopped the run and have shored up the middle of the field, which has been a problem. They've got top-notch speed on the perimeter with (end Elvis) Dumervil, Miller and Champ.
THE EDGE: Broncos, 27-20. These two teams have played some interesting games the last three times they've met. I think it's going to be another good one. I'm going with the hot team. The one thing about the Broncos is that they haven't started fast, but they've been the best fourth quarter team in football.
Every time I start breaking down this game, I'm reminded of last year's Buffalo game. (Bengals quarterback) Andy Dalton had been playing lousy and Buffalo had a high-powered offense coming in. They were averaging 33, 34 points and were coming off a big win against New England, looked unstoppable, and (kicker Mike) Nugent won it for the Bengals at the gun.
But the Bengals running game and their defense isn't playing as well as they were last year. Every time you think their defense has turned the corner, they fall back. And the Broncos look to have too many weapons to stop with running back Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman and their receivers.
Plus, the Bengals problems with tight ends on their linebackers could be a real problem with Dreesen and Tamme.
And let's face it, Marvin (Lewis) called out the entire team after the Cleveland loss when he said they were too nice and they came back and had one of their worst games of the year lacking energy. They lost by a touchdown, but it could have been worse.
One of the advantages the Bengals do have is that the right side of Denver's offensive line has given up most of their sacks. If they do spend so much time doubling (defensive tackle Geno) Atkins, that could get (left end Carlos) Dunlap off the schneid and they've been waiting on that. But Denver uses a lot of double tight ends and that could negate an advantage.
THE EDGE: Broncos, 34-20. This is a game the Bengals absolutely have to have, but I just don't see it happening. The Broncos have so much going for them right now.
I think the Bengals have a chance here. But it comes down to Andy Dalton matching Peyton pass for pass, series for series.
Dalton has to get out of this three-game funk if they're going to win. It helps that the Broncos don't blitz all that much. They've got two great edge rushers in Dumervil and Miller, but the Bengals combat it pretty well with good tackles.
The thing is, you can't make any mistakes against Peyton. If you make a mistake, he makes you pay for every little one. You almost have to play a perfect game to beat him.
The big thing is running the ball. Matthew Stafford is having the same problem in Detroit. He's having trouble getting the ball to Calvin Johnson because defenses don't have to worry about much else. In the NFL nowadays defenses are so good that it's hard to be one-dimensional. Cincinnati has to be able to run the ball better if they want to get the ball to A.J. Green consistently.
Peyton is playing well, but he's not the 100 percent Peyton, although you do have to say the 94, 95, 96 percent Peyton is very good.
THE EDGE: Broncos, 28-24. The thing is, I could see the Bengals winning by the exact same score. It wouldn't surprise me. The Broncos aren't a dominant team and with the game at home and if the crowd gets behind them, the Bengals could win. The AFC has been so even that the Bengals still have a chance. They're running out of time, but they're not out of it by any means.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sure, it's going to interesting to see how Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga respond after getting called out by Lewis and how the rest of the team reacts. But the 3-4 record trumps it all. They won't be playing desperate and hard because of a mid-week news conference but because of Sunday morning's standings.
It all gets back to big plays and little plays.
On defense, the Bengals have to stop the Broncos big plays. On offense, they have to make the little plays to keep the chains moving and keep Manning waiting behind them on the sidelines.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Broncos lead the NFL with 33 pass plays of at least 20 yards and the Bengals are allowing the seventh most in the NFL with 28.
Cincinnati has to make Denver grind it because the Broncos live on the big play. The Broncos are second in the league in offense and yet they've held the ball less than the Bengals with an average possession time of 29:07 compared to 29:42.
You've got to feel that Manning is going to do what every other offense has done and attack the Bengals in the middle of the field. Even Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said during the week his cornerbacks have played well enough but he needs to get more discipline from others.
What a coincidence. With the way Manning doesn't allow defenses to substitute with the no-huddle, the Bengals have to get their most versatile defenders on the field and that means the linebackers and safeties have to have a big game in the middle of the field.
The Bengals are upset with the perception that Maualuga is so bad in pass coverage because their grades don't show it. But with two very good tight ends at Manning's disposal, he has to be good Sunday. Joel Dreesen, who scored a TD against the Bengals for the Texans here last year, has two catches of 20-plus (one for a 22-yard TD), and Tamme has the same number of third-down catches as Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham with seven as well as two plus-20-yard catches in the last two games.
It's going to be interesting to see what lineup the Bengals put out there to combat Manning's matchups. They need guys that can play both the run and pass. They've got some big safeties and they just activated an intriguing outside linebacker off the practice squad in rookie free agent Emmanuel Lamur out of Kansas State. The Bengals like the 6-4, 232-pound Lamur's length and speed, and with what's facing them Sunday, they could decide he's more valuable active than rookie cornerback and No. 1 pick Dre Kirkpatrick.
Denver's defense is fast and they don't give many big plays. The 18 pass plays of 20-plus-yards they've allowed are fifth best, according to Elias. But the Bengals can't worry about that. They have to convert the third-and-fours. They are next to last in third-down conversions and if they come close to the 17-for-61 of the last five games, Manning is going to bury them with possessions.
So all eyes are on left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith. They're expected to do what they always do and that means go one-on-one even if it's one of the NFL's most dynamic pass-rushing tandems in Miller and Dumervil.
"They're the new age (Dwight) Freeney and (Robert) Mathis," Whitworth says of the pair Manning had in Indy for so long and well. "Both guys get good leverage and they combine speed with power. (Miller) is just in his second year, but he's a great player already. He doesn't have just one move. You can't sit on one thing. He's got a lot of moves he can give you and it's why he's going to be a great one for a long time."
It's a good contrast in style. The Bengals play a bunch of teams that max protect by helping their tackles, at times, with running backs and tight ends while they rely on the athleticism and strength of Whitworth and Smith to go one-on-one in order to free up others.
"You watch these guys (Miller and Dumervil) and you see them win their share of one-on-ones," says Whitworth, who thinks he and Smith go one-on-one more often than any tackles in the NFL. "It's a challenge but Andre I accept that. That's what we're expected to do and that's what we try to do."
The Broncos play fast, so the patience of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis could serve him well Sunday. Denver has allowed some big games on the ground, but not in the last two, when the Broncos allowed the Chargers and Saints, 3.3 and 3.0 yards per carry, respectively.
The Bengals would like to resurrect that first drive against Pittsburgh two weeks ago in which they racked up 49 yards on nine carries. In the end, that's going to dictate how much space Green gets from Bailey.
But it sounds like the Bengals are prepared to throw the ball to Green whether he's covered or not and let him make a play instead of wondering if he could have made a play.
That's the formula. Make Manning march. Convert at least 55 percent on third down and give Green a long shot once every quarter instead of one every four.