After three losses by at least three touchdowns to teams in the middle of the AFC playoff chase, the North leading Bengals (9-4-1) play one of those referendum games Monday night (8:30-ESPN Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Paul Brown Stadium against Peyton Manning's 11-3 Broncos. A victory does even more than that and qualifies them for the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
The Green-Dalton Bengals' rep in big games hurts them this week at the Bengals.com Media Roundtable even though all the esteemed members are picking a close one.
The Bengals' four straight prime-time losses of the ugly variety to go along with three straight post-season losses have Mike Klis, The Denver Post's inexhaustible beat man, tapping Manning in a matchup with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
Peter King, the former Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals' beat man now the strong man of MMQB, gives a slight edge to the Broncos because he thinks Manning is physically able to throw if he has to even though the Broncos are relying more on the run.
John Clayton of ESPN.com calls it a coin flip because he's not sure how healthy Manning is and he thinks the Bengals can hang around long enough because Denver's new-found style isn't made for blowing out teams.
Dan Hoard, the radio voice of the Bengals, enjoys a Syracuse University reunion with ESPN's Mike Tirico as WAER-FM dominates the press box for the night. He thinks the Bengals are going to get back to feeling good at home after back-to-back losses with a dose of defense and specials teams that makes things easy on the offense.
Let's go around The Table. As always visitors first.
The keys for a Broncos victory are to force Andy Dalton to keep continuing to play like he does in big games and contain running back Jeremy Hill. I know that sounds mean, but for whatever reason Dalton doesn't play well when the bright lights are on. Hill has another dimension the Broncos have not seen when they've played the Bengals in the past, or when defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has schemed against the Bengals before. With Hill and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu coming on with A.J. Green, that's three weapons for Dalton when the last time they played Denver it was really just Green.
The Broncos are No. 2 against the run but they lost two starting linebackers last week. They're both weak-side guys in Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall. They were on the field 70 percent of the time because of sub packages. So they're probably going with a couple of rookies, one of them seventh-round pick Corey Nelson and the other an undrafted rookie who was cut by New Orleans, Todd Davis. I'm sure the Bengals will try to figure out how to exploit that.
The Bengals have also been down at linebacker. If Emmanuel Lamur is healthy, they'll need more than him to cover tight end Julius Thomas. They'll basically need their nickel corner to cover him. That's what people have been doing. The safeties can't do it either, he's too fast. But then again, he's not quite right and is still gimpy with an ankle injury.
Another question mark is left tackle Ryan Clady. He's iffy. He might be out and that would mean Chris Clark would start and he started 17 games for them last season and in the playoffs, but that would still be a concern for Denver.
Running back C.J. Anderson has only 2.9 yards per carry the last two weeks after he was averaging 5.4 at one point. I think they're going to try and get him off this week and try to run at the Bengals a little bit.
The Bengals corners are going to have to deal with three very good receivers, along with Thomas. Manning is fine. Running the ball is a change in philosophy. They feel this is how you win championships. He hasn't won them doing it his way before.
THE EDGE: Broncos, 27-24. They need this game to keep pressure on the Patriots for the No. 1 seed. There's just too much prime-time baggage for the Bengals.
As some of the players have said, as bizarre as it sounds, you want to force Peyton Manning to throw. It seems ridiculous. He's probably the best ever. They're averaging 37 running attempts per game the last four weeks and they've won four straight. If you go back to the last game they lost, to a decent but not great St. Louis team, I think they had 10 rushing attempts in that game and Peyton threw it a ton. In the Bengals' four losses this year, the common thread has been horrible run defense. They have to do that first and foremost to even have a chance.
And the Broncos have been great against the run with their big nose tackle Terrance Knighton. This is why the Bengals drafted rookie Russell Bodine. Largely because of the giant nose tackles in the AFC North. But in that category in the NFL Knighton and Vince Wilfork are nos. one and two right now and that's the biggest reason Denver is No. 2 against the run because it's hard to get anything going up the gut. It's going to be tough. Russell has to at least hold his own with Knighton for the Bengals to get something on the ground. They're not going to get 240 plus again like they did against the Browns but they need something to make it a little easier on Andy.
I think the Bengals are going to play well. They did play well on Monday Night Football last year. They lost on Thursday night and Sunday night, but they did beat the Steelers at home on Monday night. I think they'll rise to the occasion. It's the last home game of the regular season and there's a lot at stake. They showed last week that embarrassment is a powerful motivator. They've been embarrassed twice on prime time this year, so I think they'll play well.
It's hard to imagine having the edge against the Broncos. They've built a team that's so good. For the Bengals to pull off the win, a few things probably have to go their way. A key turnover. Maybe something crazy happens on special teams and the Bengals get a short field. Something like that will be a big factor in pulling out the win.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. You can ask people in the press room and elsewhere that will attest to the fact that before the Cleveland game I said the Bengals were going to win the next two. I really thought this team has bounced back from bad performances and losses really well this season and I thought after the fourth quarter against the Steelers they would do it again. They made me look good against Cleveland last week and I think they've got another one in them. It will be close. Maybe Mike Nugent gets his first chance for a game winner since the Carolina game. He's a perfect 11-for-11 since that miss.
I love this game.
I don't buy the Peyton is rapidly going downhill thing. What I buy is that they've wisely changed how they play because they have a running back who can finally do what they want their running back to do. Which is basically be a dominant runner. Even though C.J. Anderson has fallen to earth a little bit the last two games, still what you're looking at is a guy that in the last month is averaging over 100 a game and they're going to keep feeding him. The last couple of weeks they played a couple of good run defenses, especially Buffalo. I think they keep feeding him Monday and the big thing he gives them if you're the team preparing for them, you can't prepare for the running game fourth and fifth and Peyton Manning first, second, and third
I do think Manning lately, whether it was because of his thigh or because he was sick, you don't know, but clearly I never ever thought I would see the day in two weeks running he would throw 40 passes total. It's different in Denver now, but I think if Manning needs to throw a lot on Monday I think he'll be able to go to that well.
If you look at Denver, this is a team that had a slow, steady improvement on defense. They had a lot of new people to get folded in early on. Now they're going to be without linebacker Danny Trevathan because he was their stalwart tackler all season. Only one time in the last six games have they really been run on. That has been the key for them. Plus, if you've got Chris Harris and Aqib Talib as two of your three dominant corner guys that's better than almost anybody in the league. I've been impressed with how they've built that defense.
But I think the Bengals very much have a chance to win. There a little bit Jekyll and Hyde. What's totally, totally bizarre to me, and I know Cleveland and Pittsburgh are different, we all know that one team is explosive and the other team is a survivor offensively…but these last two games for the Bengals, to see Pittsburgh go for over 500 yards and Cleveland to get just over 100, that's one of the weirdest stat combinations of the year. Particularly after Cleveland had come into Cincinnati and scored 24 points. Guys tend to listen to what the outside world is saying and I'm sure after Pittsburgh they knew they were just getting trashed by everybody.
I don't know what they are defensively. I think they're better than they were at the beginning of the year because their games against Houston and Tampa were good. But I want to see them against a good passing game and a good running game and if they hold Denver to 20 or 23 points, then I'll say, OK, this is a playoff-ready defense.
To me one the thing Marvin Lewis does, and he's got the security so he can do this, can be seen at running back. Giovani Bernard had the really big game against Carolina and then a few weeks later he gets hurt, so he's out for a little while. Then Hill comes in and has those two 150-yard games and when Bernard comes back, he's still a piece of the puzzle, but he's not the starting, every down running back any more because Marvin Lewis said, "I like what I see out of Jeremy Hill.' This is a guy, in my opinion, who was going to be a work-into-the-offense guy as the year went on. It's not a guy who anybody would say, 'Gee this guy is going to be a Rookie of the Year Candidate.' But the thing they've found in him is he can run the ball in a variety of ways. He gets some good tough yards in the middle of the line and yet he has that burst to go outside. It's hard to run for 150 yards in an NFL game. Really hard. And he comes within a carry last week of doing it three times in seven, eight weeks. I've been really impressed with him.
I've also been impressed with what they're doing without tight end Tyler Eifert. With the emergence of Mohamed Sanu at wide receiver and the knowledge that Bernard is going to be one of those James Brooks' type of backs as a real threat out of the backfield, and assuming tight end Jermaine Gresham is going to be OK down the stretch, I think that's an impressive group. And I didn't know anything about H-back Ryan Hewitt. Nothing until probably the last couple of weeks. He's an interesting player. Last week he was a real factor. It looks like they're developing their guys well.
Offensively assuming you get a flat line Andy Dalton that doesn't have the three-pick games he had against Cleveland and Tampa as long as he doesn't have one of those disaster games, I think they'll be in it.
THE EDGE: Broncos, 27-24. On a late field goal. I just think it's going to be close and really competitive. What Denver will try do is control the ball on the ground with C.J. Anderson, which they've been able to do three or four times this year. I think it's comfortable for them, especially when Manning is not at 100 percent.
It's interesting because the big thing for the rest of the league is seeing where Peyton is. Peyton hasn't necessarily been Peyton the last month or so, which is one of the reasons I think they went to more of a running game. That levels the playing field a little bit. He's still dangerous. For example, I think the mistake that would be made is if they stack the box against C.J. Anderson, that's going to play right into Peyton's hands. He's going to see enough green space to get the ball downfield. You noticed in the second half last week even though Peyton isn't throwing the ball great, he was able to get more longer passes downfield. I'm sure they'll still run the ball because that's one of the things they're having great success doing. That at least keeps the Bengals in the game.
It's not like a typical Peyton game where he's going to come out and throw three touchdowns in the first half and it's holding on to the lead just trying to win the game. I think it's going to be more physical, run game, more like an AFC North game than a Peyton Manning game.
The Bengals have to fear a little bit, this is a better Denver defense than went to the Super Bowl last year. Not just that they added the three Pro Bowlers, including T.J. Ward, but somehow, some way they've got a next man up philosophy at linebacker. You noticed they've lost starting linebackers and there hasn't been diminished play. Brandon Marshall's health is going to be important because with Danny Trevathan on injured reserve they're starting to run out of guys and that's going to be important stopping Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.
It's a fascinating game. You 'd think going into the season, Denver and Cincinnati, there's a question mark with Peyton Manning and it gives the Bengals a chance to win this game. And if so, they'll be in.
I'm amazed at the switch in Cincinnati. I think Giovani Bernard reminds me of the old Ray Rice, but Jeremy Hill has come in there and given them a whole different feel. It's amazing to think he's right now the only rookie back that is going to get 1,000 yards. Who would have thought that would happen?
THE EDGE: Broncos, 24-20. Usually I'd say 38-31, 31-24. I was thinking more 20-17, but it sounds like good weather and that could ratchet it up a little bit. Peyton is not going to get his usual three-touchdown, four-touchdown type of game. It's a coin toss to me. I'm going with the score more than who is going to win because, honestly, I do think the Bengals have a chance.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No brain surgery here. The Bengals have to get big games from their best players and that's the way it should be when one win puts them into the playoffs.
Dalton hasn't been good in the 11 prime-time and post-season games (2-9), but Green has also had his struggles and has just one 100-yard game in those settings. And the defense hasn't been pretty, either. Forget the two prime-time track meets this year when they gave the Patriots and Browns 220 and 170 yards on the ground respectively. How about the last three Wild Card Games when they've allowed 181 yards per game on the ground?
Any of that a Dalton implosion, Green getting shut down, C.J. Anderson going off and it means they go into Pittsburgh needing to win the last game to make the playoffs.
It's big-league matchup for Green and Sanu since Chris Harris is the NFL's No. 1 rated cornerback and hasn't allowed a touchdown this year, according to profootballfocus.com. Talib has allowed four TDs, but PFF says QBs have a rating of just 79.4 throwing at him. With Knighton clogging the middle, you can make an argument this is the most complete defense the Bengals have faced all year, and we haven't even started talking about Denver's Pro Bowl ends.
Von Miller is virtually unblockable, if you hold true to PFF, where he's the No. 1 rated pass rusher as a 4-3 outside backer with 14 sacks, 11 hits, and 44 hurries. Welcome Eric Winston, who figures to be making his first Bengals start at right tackle. Andre Smith had his hands full here two years ago against him, so we'll see what the wily vet can do. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth gets old friend DeMarcus Ware and while Whitworth handled him two years ago, is a lot healthier now, and is having a Pro Bowl year, PFF has Ware rated the league's 17th best 4-3 end with 11 sacks.
Throw in the fact that Denver has allowed 67 yards per game on the ground the last month, and the Bengals offense has to get big days from Green, Hill and Giovani Bernard to challenge them in space and vertically.
The same thing for a Bengals defense that is next-to-last in the league in generating sacks per pass against the Denver offensive line that leads the NFL in allowing the fewest sacks per pass. But the crafty Manning has a match in the Bengals' three cornerbacks that have a combined 376 NFL games to Manning's 254. A lot of brainpower is at work there and while Manning has a ton of weapons in three prolific wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Wes Welker, as well as an All-World tight end, the Bengals have been stingy on the pass all year except in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. They're first in the league in allowing just 14 TD passes and third in defensive passer rating.
The prime-time date should be cancelled out by the fact the Green-Dalton Bengals play well at home in December (9-4) and the fact they are 9-3 in their last 12 December games anywhere. That bodes well for a tight game and the Bengals have the edge in field position because Denver is lowly-ranked in special teams.
The Broncos are ranked in the bottom third of the league in the major kicking categories while the Bengals are in the top 10 punt returning, top five kick returning, and No. 1 in net punting. Conversely, Denver is 25th covering punts and 23rd covering kicks.
The Bengals are also second in the NFL covering punts. The Bengals' Kevin Huber leads the NFL in net average and Denver's Britton Colquitt has just two touchbacks.
Everyone says it's going to be a tight game. If so, the Bengals get the edge in hidden yards and that just might be the difference on a night where everything is out in the open.