Sunday's game against the Colts at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is more Weather Channel than CBS with a forecast hovering around the freezing mark and a cascade of sleet, freezing rain and snow challenging two Texas-bred quarterbacks. The Bengals.com Media Roundtable has checked its radar apps and given the unanimous nod to the outdoor Andy Dalton of the Bengals over the indoor Andrew Luck of the Colts with the help of the running game Cincinnati rediscovered last week in the balmy confines of San Diego.
After making that West Coast foray to view the Bengals-Chargers, Jarrett Bell of USA Today came away impressed with the intensity and tenacity of the Cincinnati defense and the nation's newspaper gives Sunday's edge to the Bengals because the unit is complemented so well with Cincinnati's production from its two running backs.
How bad is the weather? Alex Marvez of Fox Sports and Sirius NFL Radio closeted his signature shorts when he arrived to cover the game Friday from his native Florida and the former Bengals beat man for the Dayton Daily News taps Dalton to win this one because he has more weapons than Luck.
Jay Morrison, the current beat man in Dayton, picks the Bengals because he doesn't see the inconsistent Colts offense that works indoors getting untracked against a defense that has been so dominant at home and is used to the elements.
Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star, who has covered the Colts for all 20 seasons since they stepped off the Mayflower trucks from Baltimore, also gives the edge to the Bengals because of the weather. But he's also not sure that the vulnerable Colts defense has answers for Cincinnati's multiple options through the air and on the ground.
Let's go around The Table:
Cincinnati's defense should dictate the flow of the game. Indianapolis has struggled in some areas. After losing Reggie Wayne, Andrew Luck has not had his security blanket on third down and their running game has been more about Donald Brown than Trent Richardson and how the defense handles Brown will be key.
Watching the Bengals play last week, I was impressed with the intensity they put on Philip Rivers, one of the league's best quarterbacks, in those key situations. It was kind of a bend-but-don't-break type of game with turnovers. Those turnovers came because of hustle plays. Especially the two plays on Antonio Gates. That's being relentless in the open field.
On offense it's the same thing. I'd like to see if Andy Dalton can spread the ball around a little bit more. He's tried to do that. He's had stretches where he's done that. He has A.J. Green, so there's no doubt you have to try and get him the ball. It just seems sometimes when it gets really tight, Dalton might not be comfortable going other places where he might have other options. That interception last week was one of the worst I'd seen in a while. I know it was the residue of pressure, as well, but it's the kind of thing you want to see him grow with. When you're under duress and the play you want breaks down, you've got to get it to someone with a good option. So much of the postseason depends on if Andy Dalton can raise his game to another level when you go against these good defenses. The one thing the Colts can do to change the game is send Robert Mathis at you. That's the huge matchup.
I love Cincinnati's 1-2 punch of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard. I think they've got to ride that against a Colts defense that wanted to improve against the run. That was one of their top offseason priorities and that still has been a problem. They think it's fixable because there are stretches where they've played well against the run but the consistency is just not there. Cincinnati's running game should dictate things as well as their defense and take the load off Andy Dalton.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. The weather favors the Bengals. You're talking about playing a dome team and a California quarterback at that. I haven't seen this Colts team in a weather game yet and that's a huge advantage for Cincinnati. Plus the fact their defense plays even better at home than on the road. I just think this is a game where Cincinnati has almost no excuses. If they lose this game, that really raises serious questions about how viable they are. All the conditions are in their favor. They're playing at home against a team that doesn't have a track record of playing outdoors. They're playing against an offense that is a shell of itself and they can pound away at the Colts run defense.
We have to start with the weather and the lack of experience both quarterbacks have in the snow. Andrew Luck has admitted he hasn't played a game in the snow since he was a kid growing up. Looking at the freezing rain forecast, you wonder how effective can these quarterbacks be in the passing game. You've got to be able to run and I think that's where Cincinnati has a marked advantage. I love the move of Andrew Whitworth to left guard. He's comfortable there. He played it early in his career. I think the great part is he's actually athletic enough to go on the move. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander told me he pulled 14 times during the game last week. It's not that he's just a stiff back there. The guy's strong, he can move. I like that matchup after they got 164 yards rushing against San Diego.
Andy Dalton told me the first thing you have to watch out for against that Colts defense is outside linebacker Robert Mathis. The guy has just been an absolute demon. You have to account for him and that's where it all starts for the Colts. They're going to press, so I think Dalton will get some opportunities downfield for A.J. Green, but then again that depends on the weather.
This has been a Colts team that ever since they beat the Broncos they have not played their best football. They've gone 3-2, but it's not an inspiring 3-2. Too much needed on comebacks and two major blowout losses to the Rams and Cardinals. For a team that seemed be able to take the next step, that's not a good thing going into December. They need more consistency. It will be interesting to see how the Colts approach this game. Is it a playoff primer for them? They only have to win one of the final four games or Tennessee has to lose just one more game to win the division. What is their motivation heading into this one? Are they thinking about the No. 3 seed or No. 2 if the Patriots collapse?
I think it's a game that has a Bengals win stamped all over it. I think they're going to be able to run the football. I think the Bengals offense in a lot of ways is what the Colts want to be in terms of being able to run the ball and to have that great duo of backs. Trent Richardson hasn't worked out well for the Colts. It doesn't seem like he's reading the holes properly. Donald Brown is a nice back to have, but a guy you'd rather platoon than be a bell cow-type back. They are hurting in the interior and they're trying to run an offense that doesn't emphasize their strengths.
They've lost wide receiver Reggie Wayne and that's the whole problem. Bruce Arians told me that and he knows this offense inside and out. He said once they lost Reggie Wayne, it's just not the same offense and the injured Dwayne Allen would have been a 60-, 70-catch tight end and would have been in combo with Coby Fleener. But instead you have Darius Heyward-Bey dropping passes and they're able to bracket the coverage around T.Y. Hilton to keep him in check. Teams don't have to pay attention to the run game. They're not great running the ball, they don't have a great interior offensive line, and their weapons are limited.
I'm not worried about Andy Dalton in this game. I know the numbers weren't great last week with 190 yards passing, but he's doing what it takes to win the game. His inconsistency drives you nuts a little bit. You'd love to see the way he played against the New York Jets every week. He's just not there yet. I think we can say this is Andy Dalton's best NFL season. Drew Brees wasn't Drew Brees until 2006, his fifth NFL season when he really hit his stride. That's what I'm wondering with Dalton. You're seeing progress. This isn't a guy that's development has tapered off. To me, I still think Andy Dalton is an emerging player, which is a positive. You just want to see him have these really good games every week. I think the potential is there to do that.
I think Andy has the edge in the weather because he has the better weapons. If Andrew Luck had Reggie Wayne I would say Andrew because I think he's going to be one of these great quarterbacks as time goes on. Right now he doesn't have Reggie Wayne and his protection is spotty. How do the Colts handle these long, lean pass rushers? Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo was telling me he's used to blocking guys that are 6-1, 6-2 where you can get a punch on him because you've got a reach advantage. Here, not so much. It's a different type of line you're blocking with Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson because they're so darn tall.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. I think Luck is a prodigy quarterback, but right now Dalton has more weapons around him to make him better. The weather and the Bengals' ability to have a better running game should be the difference.
The weather is definitely going to play a role. The Colts are one of those teams that don't play out in weather like this. Only once in the last two or three years have they played in sub-40 degrees, so you wonder how they'll react. And they're not a team known for its running ability, so it's not like they can just reinvent themselves. They're going to have to deal with it more than the Bengals would.
The Bengals have faced all these good quarterbacks and have kept them from getting 300 yards passing. Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers are more mobile guys, but they're just moving around the pocket still looking to get a pass off extending the play. But Luck is one of those guys that can tuck the ball and take off and run and he can present a lot more problems running for first downs, or even shortening the chains for a better second- or third-down play.
Game plan-wise I think the Bengals will try to run it more, especially with the weather. The big question is how they are going to line up on the offensive line. It makes the most sense to move left tackle Andrew Whitworth back into guard. He played so well last week, the line as a whole played so well. Even if they get right guard Kevin Zeitler back, they've lost left guard Clint Boling (knee) for the season and they still have a hole there and Mike Pollak has played really well in there at right guard. I think it would be best to have Whit at guard and let Anthony Collins play at left tackle. AC would be going against Mathis in most cases, but if you look at how well he did against Julius Peppers in Chicago and in the Miami game he stepped in and played pretty well. Last week at San Diego he played well against the pass.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 17-14. I think it will be really low scoring and I think the weather will be a big reason for that even if they don't get the precipitation they think they're going to get. It's going to be cold and more of a defensive battle. Even in their four losses the most points the Bengals have given up in a loss is 24 and that was the opener in Chicago. So even in their losses they've held teams down. I don't see Indianapolis getting untracked this weekend.
On paper this is bad matchup for the Colts. The Bengals have got a lot of options. Tight ends, receivers, a couple of solid running backs, which stresses every area of your defense and this defense has had issues. It has had issues occasionally stopping the run. It has had issues stopping the pass over the top. It has had issues with linebackers getting beat by crossing routes underneath. It's hard to see what they focus on to stop.
Plus, the Colts offense has had problems protecting Luck and running the ball. It points to an offensive line that has had problems in the interior. The interior has been extremely vulnerable. They've given up 29 sacks and 86 hits on Luck. They're just doing a bad job protecting the guys and creating room for running backs Donald Brown or Trent Richardson. To complicate issues, you lose Reggie Wayne and the receiving corps has not responded. T.Y. Hilton is a quality, quality player, but he's all they got. Darius Heyward-Bey has not really stepped up. LaVon Brazill hasn't. They're going to give Da'Rick Rogers more of a chance, but he's a rookie that really hasn't done anything. There is absolutely no threat of the deep ball and teams are packing the box, which compounds things running the ball. Cincinnati has a handful of players that can create problems in the front seven. To me it's just a bad matchup for the Colts.
I won't be surprised if the Colts shake up their offensive line this week. They benched right guard Mike McGlynn last week, but then Jeff Linkenbach tore his quad and is out this week, and I think they'll go with Joe Reitz on Sunday. They've got to do something in there. Left guard Hugh Thornton is a rookie and he's going to be a good player, but right now he's struggling. The tackles aren't the issue.
Luck is a very good runner. He's got over 300 yards rushing. This isn't Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson, but one of the biggest plays in the Tennessee game last week was on third-and-two and he got outside for a 24-yard gain. He may need to vacate the pocket more instead of trying to stay in there and make plays. It's funny because Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians had Luck here last year and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is probably a little bigger. Luck is like 6-4, 6-5, 240, and he's tough to bring down. If you don't wrap him up he will get loose. There have been at least a half dozen times he's shouldered them off and he's gotten loose. But 29 sacks, teams are getting to him. He's getting hit now as much as he did last year.
They have good players in their secondary, but the problem is they've missed cornerback Greg Toler for the last five weeks. He's not a great player, but he's a good one and aggressive and when you lose a starter it has a trickle-down effect. When they're in there together they're pretty good. They're better in pass coverage than run support, but they're just better when Toler is there. Without him they've really struggled. Darius Butler is a good nickel guy. Good in the slot, but not outside. They need Toler and he's questionable for Sunday after being limited all week. I thought he would go if he went full Friday.
The Bengals will try to pound these guys running the ball and it seems like they did a good job of that in San Diego last week. The Colts can be worn down. They played pretty well last week with four takeaways, but that has not usually been the case. I think they can be worn down. They'll blitz their linebackers some, but rush linebacker Robert Mathis has more than half their sacks with 15.5. He is their pass rush. If they don't blitz, no one else gets there.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-13. They'll wear them down in the matchups. I think Cincinnati can put some points on the board and the Colts right now are not a team built to play from behind at all.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If the Bengals don't know who they are by now, they never will. Last Sunday's 164-yard rushing effort in San Diego with two different running backs opened the door for the struggling Dalton to make enough plays in the second half to win the game.
He's a winner and he's at his best when he's a point guard and not a scorer trying to force the action. He's a play-action, crafty welterweight who wins with his decisions as much as his arm. He's not a big-hitting heavyweight, a pure passer that can carry teams with his arm. Which is fine because the man is 10 games over .500 and is on the verge of going 3-for-3 in his first three seasons. A win Sunday guarantees another winning season and puts the Bengals closer to a third straight playoff berth.
Sunday is his type of game. Tough conditions. A grinding, grueling game between two physical teams that he has to keep in check without mistakes and the occasional big-time throw. Like the bullet he threw last week on third-and-two that wide receiver Andrew Hawkins turned into a 50-yard catch and run. Or the 28-yard pearl he dropped on the sideline to Green that set up the last drive. Throws like that cut any wind, but at seven miles per hour the breeze shouldn't be a factor.
The guy who can give the Bengals problems is outside linebacker Robert Mathis, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who has 15.5 sacks. But it is those five forced fumbles that are of particular concern on a day gripping the ball is going to feel holding a rock. Mathis is the NFL's all-time leader when it comes to forced fumbles, so the Bengals are well aware.
Mathis doesn't line up in one spot. He'll move away from the tight end, so left tackle Anthony Collins and right tackle Andre Smith are going to get any number of shots against him. The assumption is Collins is playing left tackle Sunday. Not only because right guard Kevin Zeitler has yet to go full in practice, but because the Bengals were so explosive with Whitworth last week at left guard.
Smith is coming off what Alexander said might have been his best game and Collins always seems to block the guy in front of him. He'll be making his 21st start Sunday and third this season after blanking Chicago's Julius Peppers, one of the league's active career sack leaders, and Miami's Oliver Vernon, fifth in the AFC with 10 sacks.
The best way to neutralize Mathis is to run the ball and now we're back to where this conversation started. The team that runs the ball best in the elements is going to win and the Bengals have to account for Luck in that equation. He's rushed for four touchdowns and 304 yards at more than six yards per pop. The Bengals are going to have to be leery of those third-and-longs when their coverage is locked on his receivers and not on Luck. A spy may have to be given a battlefield promotion, since Luck has just two fewer yards rushing than Richardson.
It is a battle of division leaders, a possible sneak preview of a playoff game. A win freezes the Bengals for good in any tiebreaker with Colts team that has the same 8-4 record. And it will play as such. Tightly. The Bengals 2013 Achilles heel has been the turnover with 23 of them. That can be a killer against Luck since he's 6-1 this season in one-score games and 15-2 overall. A two-pick game by Dalton could be deadly.
But if he gets 130 yards rushing, completes 65 percent of his 25 passes or so, and the Bengals defense does what it has done at PBS this season and holds foes to about 15 points per game, the faithful should be singing in the freezing rain.