The Bengals need Colorado product Ryan Hewitt to come up big against his hometown team.
For all those folks wondering if the Green-Dalton Bengals can win in the postseason, they'll get an answer Monday night (8:30-ESPN) in the heart of Bengaldom at Paul Brown Stadium.
OK, it takes place 12 days before the AFC's first playoff game but isn't that what this one is? A play-off game in December? The Bengals play the AFC West champion Broncos, the defending AFC champs, needing a victory to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth straight year and they play it in the glare of Monday Night Football against one of the giants of the sport in Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
It looks, sounds, and smells like a play-off game. The Green-Dalton Bengals starting down the barrel of their last two obstacles. Post-season football and prime-time performance.
If they lose, they can also secure a trip to the playoffs with a win in the Dec. 28 regular-season finale in Pittsburgh, but even your Aunt Tillie has been telling you since the schedule came out that they better have the playoffs wrapped up before Dec. 28.
"It has been for the last seven weeks, or six weeks or however long it's been since Halloween, in our minds," said head coach Marvin Lewis of his team's win or else mindset. "We just have to keep it up. But again, preparation and how you go about it, and the confidence of knowing what to do and how to do it allows you to play fast."
Some of the numbers are stacked against them. Winless in eight shots against Manning. A 6-15 prime-time record under Lewis, including 2-6 for the Green-Dalton Bengals. But not all the numbers. The Green-Dalton Bengals are 11-5 in December since they arrived in 2011 and since 2009 when veterans such as Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko, and Leon Hall have flexed their muscles in four playoff runs; they are 10-4 at Paul Brown Stadium in December
If it looks, sounds, smells like a playoff game, then…
The problem, of course, has not been December but January, where Lewis, Green, and Dalton are looking for their first post-season victory. But since this is a play-off game, the best way to beat Manning is with the play-off formula the Bengals have yet to capture for a single afternoon.
Take a look at how the last three AFC champs have got to the Super Bowl. Even with Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, and Manning as their quarterbacks. In the combined seven AFC playoff games won by New England in 2011, Baltimore in 2012 and Denver in 2013, they ran the ball at least 30 times.
Yeah, it's a passing league. But in January it's a balanced league. In Lewis' five post-season games, the Bengals have never run it 30 times and the Green-Dalton Bengals have never had a shot. Their backs ran it 16 times in 2011, 12 in 2012 and 20 11 months ago when the Chargers backs came at them 37 times.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been stressing playoff football since he took the job two weeks after that 27-10 loss to San Diego. While there are times he has strayed from the running game, he has embraced it when needed most. The second game against Baltimore with 34 carries. The bounce-back game in New Orleans with 36. Last Sunday's utterly necessary win in Cleveland with 40 carries from Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard after his closed-door meeting with them.
"First we've got to get through this game before we have any opportunities in January," Lewis said cautiously on Monday. "We've got to go have a great week of preparation, and go out and play great football come Monday night."
Quarterback Andy Dalton is famously 28-3-1 when his team runs it at least 30 times, 9-0 in December, and 7-0-1 this season and isn't that the post-season formula? The Bengals are at 4.3 yards per carry, a pace they haven't finished a season since running back Corey Dillon's Hall of Fame season in 2000 with 4.7.
(When his his quarterback most of the season averaged 4.7 yards per attempt.)
In the last seven playoff games, the AFC champs have averaged 32 rushes for 4.1 yards per game. Brady, Flacco, Manning, or no Brady, Flacco, Manning.
And everyone knows the best way to beat Manning, flu or no flu. In the Broncos' three loses, Seattle had the ball 38:04, the Patriots 29:27, and the Rams 35:50. Keep him off the field.
But running the ball is a tall order Monday. The Broncos are second in the NFL in allowing rushing yards per game and per attempt and on Monday Lewis talked about how well feared pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware play the run.
"People look at these guys as pass rushers, but they're also very disruptive in the run game with their athleticism and ability," Lewis said. "Their inside linebackers, I will tell you they're all athletic, they play blocks well, they get on and off blocks very well. They're all kind of cut from the same mold. They've been that way with the way they've put the defense together there with John (Fox) and Jack (Del Rio), so it's impressive that way. They're going to make you earn things."
It's another big moment for Whitworth, but what else is new? As someone said in the locker room in Cleveland Sunday, let Browns left tackle Joe Thomas keep going to Pro Bowls while Whitworth keeps going to the playoffs. He's the Pro Bowler nobody knows in a season profootballfocus.com says he has yet to allow a sack.
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham says it's the best of Whitworth's nine seasons and he'll have to be on Monday against Ware, a guy he blanked two years ago when the Cowboys beat the Bengals, 20-19, at PBS. Whitworth was immense in the run game on Sunday and you only have to look at how he pulled on Hill's 21-yard gain on the first series of the second half.
But the more troubling spot is on the other side against Miller. Miller rampaged here in 2012 with three sacks, a QB hit and two hurries and the Bengals are still trying to find their way without right tackle Andre Smith even though Smith gave up two sacks that day, according to PFF.
The Bengals made a switch at right tackle in the second half on Sunday, moving Clint Boling back to left guard and inserting Eric Winston in there 10 days after he signed. They made the move after left end Paul Kruger beat Boling for a sack, one of the many pressures Lewis didn't like.
"In the passing game, Andy did a good job a couple times avoiding pressure. We want to eliminate those pressures, and make sure at all times we don't put the ball at risk," Lewis said. "Being more exact on the perimeter and everybody understanding and being on the same page about how the route should develop, how it should apply to that coverage and the adjustments that need to be made within it. And allow Andy the opportunity to read it out and go through his progressions without having somebody in his face.
"It's a little bit of everything. We want to continue to work at that. I thought Clint stepped in and helped us the last two weeks, and we've got to continue to move forward."
Which sounds like they're still looking. Winston looked good. He was clean in the pass game and he helped running back Rex Burkhead score on a run from 10 yards out with 23 seconds left. The search may have stopped.
"Eric has really hit the ground running, and I've been impressed with how he's been able to fit in, and work to kind of fill in the blanks and get up to speed with some things pretty quickly," Lewis said.
Another key Monday night is a Colorado high school product, rookie fullback Ryan Hewitt, a guy that has been huge in the running game this season. He blew up another linebacker on Hill's 16-yard TD run on Sunday and should have had his first NFL TD catch when he was wide open down the middle, but Dalton threw it short for an interception. When tight end Jermaine Gresham was a scratch in pregame, Hewitt flashed his versatility.
"He continues to excel in everything he's given. Obviously yesterday he played the fullback, move guy and tight end at the line of scrimmage. And that's big for your offensive football team to be able to have a guy who can handle all three spots, to be interchangeable."
Lewis has been saying it. They've been playing January games all December.
"We've got a couple of them. Three of them. Four of them. Add them," Lewis said. "We're 1-1 now, so we've got to go."
The direction appears to be on the ground.