If this is December and the Bengals are in the hunt for the AFC playoffs, then this must be the Broncos and Mile High. And so it is Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the 7-6 teams play what is basically another one of those Wild Wild Card Games of near elimination.
The Bengals try to rewrite the last-minute loss in a 2006 Christmas Eve swirling snow and the frigid overtime loss in 2015. They are looking for something like the 2014 ending at Paul Brown Stadium when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick danced through the flurries with a pick-six of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the final minutes to give them a Wild Card berth.
Big? In '06, an 8-6 Bengals win against the 8-6 Broncos would have put them in the playoffs. In '15, a win for the 11-3 Bengals against the 10-4 Broncos would have given them the first round bye that Denver secured instead on the way to winning the Super Bowl.
Big? With a win Sunday, The New York Times playoff calculator puts the Bengals' chances at 52 percent. A loss and it is 16 percent.
Like the rest of the AFC, yet again, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is split.
Estimable and experienced Jim Trotter of NFL Media gives the edge to the Bengals because of Joe Burrow and defense. Relentless and respected beat reporter Mike Klis of Denver's 9News, who covered all those games, loves the Bengals in 2023 but not on the next-to-last Sunday of 2021.
The Cincy contingent also cuts it down the middle. ESPN.com's Ben Baby thinks it is too big of a challenge for the Bengals' re-shuffled offensive line to overcome while The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith believes the Bengals wide receivers carry the day in their marquee matchup against the Denver secondary.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
On paper the Bengals are the better team. They've got a big passing game with not only an exciting, young quarterback but three, four weapons in the passing game and then you've got (Joe) Mixon. It's similar to the Chargers. Everyone compares them. (Joe) Burrow and (Justin) Herbert. The Chargers receivers. The only difference is Mixon is a better running back than (Austin) Ekeler and the Broncos don't stop the run that well. As (Broncos head coach Vic) Fangio pointed out they've had eight inside linebackers and they only play two, so that adds up to me the fourth-stringers are in. So they're hurting against the run.
The Bengals are a young team, so they tend to beat themselves every now and then. Two years from now I'd rather be the Bengals. Can the Broncos win this week is the question. It's going to be a tight game. I think the Broncos have more experience because of (quarterback) Teddy (Bridgewater). They're less likely to beat themselves. Fangio tends to confuse young quarterbacks. He disguises his coverages. He disguises his pass rush and young quarterbacks have a tough time figuring out what's going on, so he'll need to dial it up against Burrow because I think you guys have talent all over the place.
The other thing on paper I think the Bengals have is you're tough against the run and the Broncos have a good running game. Teddy picks up third downs. He'll pick up a fourth down. Everybody goes for it on fourth down. He's not very dynamic, but he competes like a son of a gun. He spins out of pass rush.
THE EDGE: I think it's going to be a great game. I just think the Fangio defensive system confuses Burrow just enough and Teddy makes just enough plays. BRONCOS, 27-26
The game has consequences, which means it should be pretty good. I'm guessing it will be close coming down the stretch. I think we over analyze quarterbacks some times, but I have been so impressed with Joe Burrow. I don't mean that from just a talent standpoint. I mean it from a moxie standpoint, a leadership standpoint. From the standpoint of creating a certain culture and expectation within a team. I just think he's going to be a star for some time in this league. But I do think the Broncos defensively, they have their moments when they step up and rise up and Vic Fangio is one of the better defensive minds in the league and makes it an interesting matchup.
One thing I love about the Bengals defense is they get after quarterbacks, so I think they're going to put pressure on Bridgewater. But I will say this. One area the Bengals have to improve in to try to go to the next level is their tackling. I think they miss too many easy tackles and give up yards they shouldn't and against the playmakers Denver has on the perimeter, I think it's going to be central and key to limit yards after catch.
THE EDGE: But I think their defense makes just enough stops to win. BENGALS, 24-20
Presented by On Location. Check out some of the top travel photos as the Bengals head to the Mile High City to face the Denver Broncos in Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season.
It's going to be a really fascinating matchup that I think comes down to whether the Bengals can run the ball against Denver. If they can establish Joe Mixon and the offensive line is able to move guys around, they'll be able to control the tempo of the game and pace of the game. When Cincinnati has done well this season, that's what they've been able to do. Ball control offense that runs primarily out of Mixon and then establishing the pass after that. The big question is going to be is how healthy is the offensive line going to be with the moving parts coming in. It's just tough to get the cohesion, especially with line coach Frank Pollack's wide zone scheme. It's basically a lot of chemistry involved. The more guys get reps together the better that is going to look. When it's come off well, it's been very good. Probably some of the shuffling around has not helped much the last couple of weeks. The opportunities are there with a running back like Joe Mixon and based on what we've seen running the ball is so key for them.
When you look at Denver, it's going to be a really tough team to chase. I think that's what is going to make the beginning so important because this is probably the best secondary they face. This is one of the best defenses in the league and when you look at the playmakers they have at each level, it's a really imposing unit. Probably the toughest defense the Bengals have faced this season by a wide margin. The Bengals want to run the ball really well, that's what the Broncos do give you, so I think Cincinnati would be wise to take advantage of that.
THE EDGE: With the struggles of the offensive line and the run game the last few weeks and because the Broncos don't give you anything in the passing game, I think it's going be a very low scoring game. Denver is not known for their offense. It's a game you'll have to maximize possessions and do well in the red zone and Denver is also really good at limiting that. It's going to be tough for the Bengals to win this game if they don't jump out to a lead with the running game. BRONCOS, 17-13
It's a strength on strength matchup. The Bengals receivers vs. the Broncos cornerbacks. It reminds me of the Bengals-Browns game from week nine, but the difference is I think the confidence Tee Higgins has gained in the past three weeks and the experience Tyler Boyd has in the offense makes the Bengals passing game more equipped to face a great secondary. I think they're going to need the passing game to overcome an offensive line that has question marks just in terms of sickness and injury with (right tackles) Reiff (and Isaiah Prince) out.
But I think overall the Bengals are in a better spot. The passing game is better-rounded and more proven than it was even at the bye week and I think Higgins, especially, will open up more opportunities for the rest of the offense and they'll need everything they can get against that Broncos secondary.
THE EDGE: Higgins, Boyd and Ja'Marr Chase are going to have a statement game. BENGALS, 31-24
THE BOTTOM LINE
On the sacred Mile High turf where Broncos Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway won 81 percent of his games and went 5-0 against Cincinnati in some close ones, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow duels Denver's stingy secondary in what promises to be another tight one. Three of Elway's Mile High wins against Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Jeff Blake were by a combined 11 points.
So here we go.
The fear is that the key misses on defense (middle linebacker Logan Wilson as well as three cornerbacks out with illness or injury) makes the Bengals vulnerable against Denver's two talented running backs and that another shakeup on the offensive line (third right tackle Fred Johnson gets his first start of the season) limits their ability to take advantage of Denver's run defense.
But the Broncos are still ranked tenth against the run (seventh overall) and are a massive test for an offense that can be oh so good but in November and December has been plagued by early turnovers (the Browns) and late (Chargers) that blew open tight games. During the week Burrow said this was probably the best secondary he's faced this year and compounding the challenge is that Fangio is a master of disguise hoping to deke Burrow to add to his NFL-leading 14 interceptions.
But Burrow was so good last week playing a big-time game (348 yards on 74 percent passing) while taking care of the ball that Fangio has to pause. He loves to play man-to-man among his mixture, but Burrow also loves throwing against man and the Bengals have an extreme amount of faith in their trio of wide receivers beating the guy across from them.
Here's another big matchup. The Broncos defense is nasty in the red zone. Their eighth in allowing touchdowns and on seven trips have allowed no scores. The Bengals, very good there early in the year, have slid to 19th in the league scoring TDs inside the 20 after last week's game-deciding one of five.
The Bengals hope they can do what the 49ers did last week against them and survive a decimated crew of cornerbacks. Chidobe Awuzie, their best cornerback, is on the COVID list and they don't know how much they can get out of his replacement.
Trae Waynes, a 2015 first-round pick, was signed in 2020 as a No. 1 cornerback, but he's played just two games since 2019 and hasn't played since Oct. 10 after he aggravated a training camp hamstring injury. They've got just five cornerbacks Sunday with three of them (Waynes, Tre Flowers, Jalen Davis) having a combined 205 snaps this season.
What's interesting here is that Denver's big wide receiver, Courtland Sutton, hasn't had more than two catches in the last six games.
Keep an eye on special teams. That's how the Bengals lost last week's game on two fumbled punts. With wide receiver Trent Taylor elevated from the practice squad for the first time this season, it figures he'll return punts. He had 49 with San Francisco in his career, but just 19 in the past three years. He could return kicks, too, but he's only done that twice and not since 2018.
Yet Denver has really struggled on teams. The Broncos have allowed two punt blocks, a field goal block, a 102-yard kick return, and a penalty on the field goal block team probably cost them a win against the Steelers.
If this is December and a Bengals' playoff berth is at stake against the Broncos, it is going to be close. A mistake in any of the phases has and will decide it.