Since John Elway spurned the Yankees and ended up a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer in Denver, the Broncos are 15-4 against the Bengals. Now Elway comes to Paul Brown Stadium as the Broncos football chieftain for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12, order tickets) facing a Bengals team that has its own big-league prospect turned quarterback in Jeff Driskel, a five-tool guy that said no to the Yankees' arch-rival Red Sox so he could play in the NFL.
Yet this is Driskel's first NFL start and the Bengals.com Media Roundtable senses what Elias knows. Since Bruce Gradkowski came off the bench to save the 2011 opener for Andy Dalton, NFL debut quarterbacks are 23-47, although head coach Marvin Lewis is 2-1 in his career with road wins for Dalton and AJ McCarron and a home loss for Carson Palmer.
So it's fitting that leading off The Table in a guest appearance is ESPN.com reporter for the Yankees, Coley "Hollywood," Harvey, the former Bengals ESPN.com reporter that chronicled two AFC North titles from 2013-2015 with charismatic zeal while doing it well. He saw the Bengals split two huge games with Denver in that stretch, but thinks injuries have sapped the Bengals of too much on Sunday.
Laurel Pfhaler of The Dayton Daily News hasn't seen enough of a spark on either side of the ball for the Bengals to singe Denver's two-game winning streak and long-time Broncos beat reporter Mike Klis now covering the Vance Joseph Era for Denver's Channel 9 believes the club's confidence from wins over the Chargers and Steelers carries over to the road.
Richard Skinner is used to taking a stand as the digital doctor for Cincinnati's Channel 12 web site and so he doesn't mind standing alone to call it for the Bengals, citing the juice brought from Driskel's athleticism and arm and the return of A.J. Green in a home setting.
Let's go around the Table. As always, ladies and visitors first:
They haven't shown much in the last three weeks. But it feels like a game the Bengals can be in all the way with wide receiver A.J. Green back. I think it could go either way. It's just going to depend how they adjust to Jeff. If he can do some things with his legs, that would help. It's big that he'll have A.J. to lean on. I like the fact Driskel is confident. It seems like he's ready to jump in there. I have a feeling he'll have a good game. He came in on the fly last week and gave the Bengals a chance. There were some mistakes with false starts so I'm sure they're hoping they get that straightened out with a week of practice.
Even just a few weeks ago it seemed this would be a favorable matchup for the Bengals, but the Broncos are coming off two big wins. Quarterback Case Keenum has played well the last month and rookie Phillip Lindsay is running well. The thing that makes this matchup hard to figure out is that we haven't seen much improvement from the Bengals defense.
THE EDGE: With a new quarterback and the defense still struggling, it's hard to see it coming together this week. BRONCOS, 28-21
The Broncos are coming off a big win, really impressive what they did to Pittsburgh. And they're a team that knows some of the nuances and personality of the Bengals when you talk about Broncos head coach Vance Joseph coming back to town. I think they're still a team trying to find itself, searching for a little bit of identity despite the win over the Steelers.
Its' been such a tough year for the Bengals. Even though I don't live here anymore and keep up with it like I did, I kind of feel for them. I thought this was a year that could have been different but when you have the injuries and other issues pop up it makes it very challenging. I had a little déjà vu when Andy Dalton went on injured reserve the other day. I was not only here when Andy broke the thumb, but when A.J. missed games with his toe and Tyler Eifert was shelved. And this year all those things happened. It just shows you the challenges coaching, preparing and, frankly, executing around that.
Driskel has been in the offense and they've got other pieces around him. A.J is coming back to compete despite the injury and that will really help him. Running back Joe Mixon has been stable. There are ways they can exploit things despite the transition at quarterback. It's going to be tough. Not only is Vance in town, but so is former Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko. He knows the bricks and mortar around here. It's not going to be easy to run on him inside and he's got that institutional knowledge of the Bengals.
THE EDGE: I'm going to side with the guys that have a little bit of momentum. Plus, the Bengals are kind of reeling with the injuries and the big loss to the Browns. But a low-scoring, tight game. BRONCOS, 24-17.
The Broncos are 5.5-point favorites based on what I'd like to know. I guess because of last week's win over a good Steelers team and because of the Driskel situation. But I've said this many times on the air here in Denver. If the Bengals had to pick one between A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, I'm not so sure you wouldn't pick A.J. Green. He seems to be the big difference maker on that team. I think it's scary the Broncos are this big favorite on the road.
Denver got outplayed in the last two games even though they won, but they got the two picks against the Chargers' Philip Rivers and didn't turn the ball over and had four turnovers against the Steelers, including two at their own goal line. They had some fortune, but the Broncos are riding high and have momentum. They look at the schedule and quietly think they can run the table. We'll see.
They've got problems in the secondary. There is Chris Harris, but they've also got a bunch of leaks. And they've got some injuries on offense up front that are concerning, but so far they've done really well with the backups. Two starting linemen and a top reserve who had been a starter all had season-ending injuries and yet they've run the ball well with three good running backs with the undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay, the big surprise as the NFL's seventh-leading rusher. Quarterback Case Keenum began the year inconsistently but has played well over the last three games and hasn't had an interception. And that's with the star power on offense down to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders now that Demaryious Thomas has been traded. They hope Cortland Sutton becomes the No. 1, but right now he's an inconsistent rookie. They've lost all their tight ends, but I don't think the Bengals are feeling sorry for the Broncos.
Defensively, it starts with pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and Chris Harris has had a fine season. Those are their three defensive stars. Harris won't follow A.J. because Chris is a 5-9, 5-10 corner. It's a physical mismatch. He goes in the slot in nickel and is a really good tackler. Very aware. But after that, they're in trouble there with Green. The Broncos are anticipating a run-pass option offense. That's where they've had some trouble. Philadelphia torched them last year. The Chiefs have beaten them twice. Since they got gouged in the run against the Jets and the Rams, they've been playing eight in the box and they've been left vulnerable in the back end. But it has worked for them with Von and Chubb supplying pressure.
THE EDGE: When the Broncos lost early, they lost tough. They were up ten in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs. They held the high-powered Rams to 27 points. They battle and grind. The Bengals have the NFL's worst defense and the Broncos will be able to get to 28 and they're generally a 24-point team. I think Driskel will be good. I think Green will be good. The Bengals cover. But the Broncos are hot with turnovers and maybe they get a couple to pull it off. It seems like they've got things going their way. BRONCOS, 28-23.
It's kind of exciting and this is no knock on Andy. I'm one of his biggest supporters in this city because I think he's accomplished a lot of things and people don't give him credit for it. It's exciting because it's a different style of quarterback. The kid's got some ability and not just athletic ability. I thought he threw the ball well and made some really good decisions against Cleveland. Now that people can game plan for him and all the pressure that comes with a first start, it's going to be harder for him.
I think he has enough juice to get them through. I think there's a chance that he and A.J. gives them enough juice to bounce back. You saw his ability to extend plays against the Browns and, yeah, with the left tackle banged up, that helps. When Myles Garrett went right around Cedric Ogbuehi, Driskel was able to dance away. Even the throw to Tyler Boyd that was called back he extended that as far as he could and just heaved it up on fourth down and they made a play. I think that ability to move is a key. Now maybe you've got some designed runs and he's able to pop a couple and not just him, but Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard. But the kid can really throw the ball. We'll see what kind of quarterback he is.
Can the Bengals defense stop anybody? The first week of Marvin calling the defense in Baltimore, you had a quarterback in Lamar Jackson that was kind of gimmicky, so I'll give you that because the option can be hard to stop. But to have Cleveland put up four touchdowns in the first four drives is inexcusable. I don't care what you have at linebacker. You've got your front four and starting corners. Can't happen. Marvin sounds confident they're close to getting it fixed. Well find out on Sunday.
THE EDGE: This Denver defense has given up 1,000 yards in the last two games. They've been opportunistic with six turnovers and they didn't turn it over at all. That has a way of evening things out in this league. If the Bengals take care of the ball, they should be able to move on this team and put up some points. BENGALS, 27-24
THE BOTTOM LINE
So in his first NFL start, does former No. 3 QB Jeff Driskel channel Jeff Blake with a unique skill set and give the struggling Bengals a shot of adrenaline in front of a home crowd thirsting for success as Blake did 24 years ago against the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys?
The Bengals barely lost that one on a late field goal, but these Broncos are far from defending Super Bowl champs. In fact, the Bengals beat the Broncos at Mile High just 54 weeks ago. But that seems like 54 years ago with the Bengals placing 14 players on injured reserve while suffering through the worst defensive stretch in franchise history.
And yet, both clubs are 5-6 and the only difference is Denver is riding a terrific two-game winning streak with impressive wins over the Chargers and Steelers. The Bengals have lost five of six and are in danger of their first four-game losing streak and first three-game home losing streak in six years. Those were skeins reached in the same game, a 2012 PBS loss to Denver.
The Broncos are the kind of team that makes Bengals fans shake their heads. Here they have two offensive line starters and a key reserve that was starting lost for the season. And yet with an undrafted guard and an undrafted rookie running back, the Broncos average 5.2 yards per carry with Phillip Lindsay seventh in NFL rushing. And quarterback Case Keenum has settled down after a tough start and has gone three straight games without a pick.
And that is Sunday's key. Can Driskel not turn it over? Denver has also been re-writing the defensive record book in an offensive way. For the first time in more than 50 years Denver is coming off two games in which they allowed at least 475 yards in each and they won both because they didn't turn it over while forcing six. The Broncos are hanging by a thread on defense despite Von Miller and Bradley Chubb with a 25th ranking. But in the five games they've won they've got 14 of their 18 turnovers.
Miller and Chubb make up the most prolific sack duo in the league with a combined 19.5 and injuries have wiped out the Bengals' top and back-up left tackles and they've got to hope Driskel's 6.5 60-yard baseball speed should help them there.
The Bengals defense has let the last two PBS games get out of hand right away. Try 63-14 at halftime. Nine drives. Nine touchdowns. It doesn't matter if Driskel turns out to be Elway. No one is beating that. Hopefully with Nick Vigil back at SAM backer they can prevent the Denver running game from taking over the game right away. But in order to do that, they have to play the run like they did last week in the only game they've made any kind of stand. They're still giving up 4.7 yards per carry.
It's hard to see Keenum matching how the Saints' Drew Brees and the Browns' Baker Mayfield carved them up in the last two PBS games through the air while racking up the two highest passer rating games by a foe in head coach Marvin Lewis' 16 seasons. After Brees hit 22 of 25 passes, Mayfield hit 17 of his first 21. When the dust cleared they combined to hit 80 percent of their passes. Tough to win that.
They'll need to give Driskel more help than that. And not just the defense. The Bengals' kicking protection has been shaky all year. Two blocked field goals. A blocked punt. Two punts deflected. Now here comes Denver leading the NFL this season in blocked kicks.
But here's a stat the Bengals can exploit on special teams. They're third in punt return average (thanks to Alex Erickson's 13.7 yards per return that would be third in the NFL if he had enough attempts) and the Broncos are 27th and 26th defending gross and net punt, respectively.
It's going to matter. But only if the defense keeps it in Driskel's hands.