The last time the Bengals were in Indianapolis, they were trounced by the Colts but afterward experienced a transformation that made them into a quality team for a season and a half. Things have come full circle for Cincinnati as they head back to Indy as a bad team once more.
The biggest difference between the disappointing campaign of 2008 and the one we see today is that the franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, is healthy enough to start. When Ryan Fitzpatrick was under center, the Bengals didn't have the confidence to regularly win games; in 2010, it's anyone's guess as to why the team can't get it together with Palmer as their man.
As for the Colts, well, they don't change much. Even with a multitude of important players on the disabled list, Peyton Manning continues to rack up the wins. He's a craftsman at his trade and makes anyone standing near him a more talented person. He remains the figure-head of a well-ran organization that is nicely composed by general manager, Bill Polian. As long as both of these men are with the Colts, Indianapolis is a Super Bowl contender year in and year out.
This week's game should exemplify the competency level of each franchise. The Colts, undermanned and relying on key backups, will likely play smart by emphasizing their strengths of the no-huddle offense and an intense pass-rushing defense. The Bengals, on the other hand, are more likely to continue to perplex their fans by ignoring the no-huddle passing offense until they have no choice once they have fallen behind, and allow Manning to carve them up through the air by dropping back linebackers and safeties into coverage rather than blitz. I don't expect the game to be close, and it would not surprise me if Palmer is forced out of the game from multiple hard hits.
Colts offense vs. Bengals defense
With no discernible pass rush coming from anyone on the Bengals defense, Peyton Manning should have plenty of time in the pocket, which makes it nearly impossible to beat him. As the master at line audibles and last-second adjustments, Manning probably knows how the Bengals will defend him before they even do, and that makes the battle that much more uphill. If Zimmer feels aggressive and blitzes No. 18, he has a chance of disrupting the Colts machine but if anyone misses a tackle or are simply too slow to cover their man, it can turn into big plays and points in a hurry. Regardless, defenses must try to get Manning on the ground because he is simply too good to dare to throw into coverage.
One of the mismatches the Colts will look for is their backup-made-starter tight end, Jacob Tamme, working against the Bengal linebackers who are simply terrible in coverage. Tamme has subbed in for pro-bowler Dallas Clark masterfully, catching 17 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the past two weeks. He has good hands, runs routes well and has the quarterback to maximize his potential to the fullest. I expect Tamme to have another big day, especially on third down and in the red zone. Other injured weapons include Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie and Joseph Addai, but the Colts have proven time and again that as long as Manning is healthy, they can win throwing to just about anyone.
Of course, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon are still healthy and each will be a handful for a cornerback tandem once considered elite but slipping in that category thanks to some recent sloppy performances. Even if those two are covered most of the game, Manning will still find a way to get them the ball, and slot receiver Blair White is likely to see some passes thrown his way as well. Essentially, there is no shutting down the Colts offense. Remove one guy from the picture and watch the others rack up big days. That being said, the Bengals would be wise to prevent Wayne and Garcon from killing them and take their chances on backups like White and Tamme.
The Colts are also effective running the ball because the pass is so dangerous. None of their backs are the most physically impressive and Addai is the only one with a good amount of productive experience, but complimentary backs Mike Hart and Donald Brown often gain good yardage in key moments because so much running space is allowed from overcompensating for the pass. Manning knows when to check off to the run better than anyone and when he sees a crack in the run defense, he attacks it. I wouldn't count on a 100-yard rusher emerging in this game, but expect the Colts to pick up a healthy yards-per-run average.
Bengals offense vs. Colts defense
The biggest thing to worry about concerning the Indianapolis defense is their speedy ends, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Leave either of these players in single protection and you run a great risk getting your quarterback hammered. Palmer has a sore throwing shoulder which forced him to miss some practice time this week. Andre Smith broke his fat foot again this week and is lost for the year. If his replacement, Dennis Roland, or the line's captain, Andrew Whitworth, lose containment on the sack specialists of the Colts, Palmer may end up with an ice pack wrapped around his shoulder and watching his brother run around for his life in this game. Nobody wants to see that.
If the Bengals are able to protect well, then, like always, the Bengals should go to the air. The coaching staff insists on "establishing the run" in practically every circumstance—including last week against the best run-stuffers in the business—but the Colts aren't especially great against the run so it may not be a bad idea to give it a try this week. The problem is, the Colts offense is likely to get points early on which would force the hand of the infamous Bengal play-caller which I will not mention by name. The Bengals are at their best when they get into attack mode in the passing game, and I would come out blazing with the pass to try and get a lead. If that can be achieved, then I would run the ball once the secondary is on their heels. Establish the pass to set up the run. That way, even if the Colts are putting up points, the offense has a chance to match tit for tat. If Cincinnati tries to use clock and play for field goals early in the game, they may not have the time or element of surprise to make a reasonable comeback.
It has been said that the reason Chad Ochocinco has seen his production fall off, is because he is constantly double-teamed. This occurrence has benefited Terrell Owens and to a lesser degree, Jordan Shipley too. I know Chad is frustrated with this, but it's important not to force the ball to him in order to appease him. First off, Chad needs to prove that he is still a reliable target when he does get passes thrown to him because he hasn't managed to pull in his trademark sideline passes much at all this season. To me, it appears he has created a weird mental construct that is keeping him from succeeding; it reminds me of a hitting slump. If he can find his "happy place" and clear his mind of all the negative energy he has recently collected, he can return to being the Chad Johnson we all enjoyed in the past.
Speaking of Shipley, though, it is refreshing to see a player become the most reliable receiver on the team in his first year. While TO may be the most productive, and Chad the most high-profile, it is Shipley that has come up with the drive-sustaining catches the most this season. I think the Wes Welker comparisons are actually coming true and you can just sense that Carson feels really comfortable throwing the ball his way. It would behoove the Bengals to keep up the philosophy that when the going gets tough, the tough go to Shipley.
And, as always, play Bernard Scott more.
For a good team, winning in Indianapolis is extremely difficult. For the mediocre to bad ones, it's damn near impossible. Even less so than last week, there is no sensible reason why the Bengals should win this game. They are mentally and emotionally in the dumps, their hopes for a playoff run are ruined, their fans don't like them very much right now, they seem old and slow, their coaching philosophy is stale and tired, and they're traveling to play one the best teams in the league. I will watch the game, root them on and hope for a win, but I don't think the Bengals have a chance in hell.
Colts 31, Bengals 13
Mojokong—the Sheriff takes on the town drunkard.