The Bengals and Colts get set for another installment of the I-74 rivalry when Cincinnati hosts Indianapolis at Paycor Stadium on Sunday. The game airs at 1:00 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:
1. Pac-12 Quarterback Duel
The storyline of Sunday's game largely surrounds two quarterbacks coming off stellar performances in Week 13. On the Cincinnati side, Jake Browning earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after completing 86.5 percent of his passes (32 of 37) for 354 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers at Jacksonville on Monday night. In just his second career start, Browning put himself alongside some highly notable quarterbacks with his stat line, both in Bengals and in NFL history, to lead the Bengals to a thrilling overtime win.
"He just lit the world on fire," said head coach Zac Taylor following the 34-31 win. "I thought he managed the game beautifully well. He was aggressive with some of his throws. He did a great job making plays with his feet. I'm really proud of the job he did, and the guys rallied around him, making plays for him and protecting him."
The Colts are coming off an overtime victory of their own at Tennessee, which was decided by a game-winning touchdown pass from quarterback Gardner Minshew II to standout wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Minshew finished the game with 312 passing yards, the sixth most in a game in his career, with two passing scores.
While Sunday will be the first time Browning and Minshew meet on an NFL field, they did face off in the 2018 Apple Cup rivalry between Washington and Washington State. Browning's Huskies got the better of Minshew's Cougars that day at a snow-covered Martin Stadium.
2. Mixon, Brown Seek Repeat Showing
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Browning's show-stealing Monday night was Cincinnati's rushing attack. The Bengals churned out a season-high 156 yards on the ground, powered by a balancing act between veteran Joe Mixon (68) and rookie sparkplug Chase Brown (61).
Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have shared their intentions for keeping Brown involved. His nine carries at Jacksonville more than tripled his workload over his first six games. He figured to see more action earlier in the season, but a hamstring injury put him on the Reserve/Injured list for four games. Brown showcased a highly touted explosiveness with a 31-yard run in the third quarter, Cincinnati's longest rush of the year.
Mixon not only had his sixth game this season with 60-plus yards — surpassing 6,000 career rushing yards in the process — but he also found the end zone twice. He quietly has six touchdowns over the last six games.
Mixon and Brown look for more success this week against a Colts defense that is allowing 133.3 rushing yards per game, the 26th most in the NFL. If the Bengals' efficient passing game can be complemented by a two-headed rushing effort, Cincinnati will be in strong position to march the ball downfield consistently.
3. Bengals' Athletic Secondary vs. Michael Pittman Jr.
Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. has gone for over 100 yards on 10-plus catches in each of his last two games. Last Sunday at Tennessee, he totaled 11 grabs for 105 yards, including a four-yard game-winning touchdown catch in overtime.
Limiting Pittman's targets will be a primary focus for Lou Anarumo's defense, and spearheading that effort is Chidobe Awuzie and DJ Turner II. With Pro Bowl candidate Cam Taylor-Britt sidelined by an ankle injury, Awuzie and Turner played every defensive snap in Jacksonville and may figure to do so again. Neither player shied away from physicality, as they logged eight tackles apiece.
4. O-line Faces Balanced Colts Pass Rush
Though the Colts don't boast any player ranking in the top 15 leaguewide in sacks this season, their 42 team sacks are second most in the NFL and come as a product of a balanced pass rushing effort. Four players have at least five sacks, led by defensive end Samson Ebukam, who comes in red hot with four over the past two games.
The Colts' sack numbers become even more impressive when factoring in that they blitz on just 19.6 percent of all plays, the second lowest rate of any defense in the league. Cincinnati's offensive line kept Browning upright for the majority of Monday night's game, as he was sacked twice while throwing 37 pass attempts. Browning also consistently got the ball out quick to aid that effort, and a similar game plan in Week 14 will mitigate Indianapolis' potent pass rush.
5. Bengals Pass Rush Looks For More
On the other side, Cincinnati's defense has totaled nine sacks over the past three games, including four on Monday night. Edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard both contributed to that effort and will seek to keep it rolling against Indianapolis.
To combat a Gardner Minshew-led Colts offense that doesn't hesitate to push the ball downfield, the Bengals would benefit from creating negative plays in the backfield and keep Indianapolis behind the chains. Hendrickson heads into Sunday with 11.5 sacks (tied for sixth in NFL), just three shy of his career high in 2021. If he can get in that column for a fourth straight game, it may contribute to a crucial Cincinnati win in the AFC playoff race.