The last quarter is here. All in all, things have gone well for the Bengals. They sit atop their division and are now battling for a nice seed (aren't we all?). They enjoy a final stretch where they will play three of their last four games at home. Every player on the active roster practiced this week. Games are selling out. Football is fun in Cincinnati.
The Colts are so similar, and yet so different from that. They too have a comfortable lead in their division, are thinking of playoff position and get two easy remaining home games on the schedule. Yet the climate around the Indianapolis football team feels more worried than fun.
This team is in a funk. Their offensive identity is questionable. Andrew Luck scrambling is their best play at the moment. It seems they have not evolved past the Reggie Wayne injury and their power-run efforts have been stymied by Trent Richardson's inability to acclimate to his new scheme quickly enough. Last week, the Colts beat the Titans on the strength of Ryan Fitzpatrick making poor decisions and turning the ball over four times; it felt more like a Tennessee loss than an Indianapolis win. The week before that they were hammered by the Cardinals in the desert. Momentum has waned some on the Cots' season here in December which can be the death knell for Super Bowl hopefuls. If Indianapolis gets handled in this one against the Bengals, it might take great effort to rise from the proverbial mat.
All that being said, no 8-4 team is made up of bums. Andrew Luck consists of high-grade material. His instinct for the game is tremendous, he's more athletic than he looks, and his arm is just fine, thank you. This guy carries his team the way great ones do and shows a lot of passion and confidence in the huddle. The problem seems to be the lack of play-makers around him. After the Wayne injury, Coby Fleener now appears the most dangerous Colts receiver.
Another problem seems to be the offensive line, which has been porous the last two weeks. Luck has good pocket-presence but often hasn't had time to run. Poor pass-protection mixed with receivers not getting open against the Cincinnati front four-in the snow-makes for a scary day for Mr. Luck.
The Bengals defense is fierce even with missing stars. They allow short throws all day, allow mini drives to their own 40, and then tighten up like a straightjacket forcing punts and an occasional field goal. They delight their fans and frustrate the crap out of the opposition. They are the Zim Clan and we love them dearly. The Colts will need a few long plays to truly make a difference against them, and that ain't easy.
On the Cincinnati side, their offense is the opposite of Indianapolis. They have a tremendous assortment of weapons in their stockpile, but their quarterback is not of Andrew Luck ilk. The backups on this offense are better than many starters in the league. Talent drips from Jay Gruden's roster.
The quarterback issue has been worn to bits by fans and observers and is always summed up by saying that Andy Dalton is "okay". Now, though, the thinking is that perhaps Dalton's arm will become less important down the wintery stretch to the playoffs. Last week in sunny San Diego, the Bengals pounded their way to a tough-guy win and performed the victory formation on the Chargers three yard line. The offensive line has been shuffled in a manner that I believe will show improved results from their previous line up. Andrew Whitworth was a terrific guard early in his pro career. Anthony Collins is an exceptional backup tackle. Kevin Zeitler is battling some injuries at the moment but was out last week too and the line carried on nicely without him.
Perhaps now with the line adjustments, the Bengals may turn to power running more often, but I also think that may have been the idea since training camp irregardless of injury. Remember last season when the Bengals enjoyed their best stretch of games in November by pounding the rock, allowing BenJarvus Green-Ellis to display something like explosiveness, especially at home. Now with Benny complimented by the electric Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati can both wear out defenses and gash them in the process.
The Colts are a decent team to try a new identity on. Their man-to-man defense allows for big runs if the runner can reach their second tier. They also allow a lot of underneath stuff on the pass. Last week, Fitzpatrick chose the deeper crossing route instead of the check offs and short out routes that looked to be there all day. I know it's a term many football fans hate to hear, but if Dalton simply manages the game and minimizes the risks, I think the Bengals can nickle-and-dime the Colts to a win. The last team to play a lot of man coverage against Cincinnati were the Jets and they were roasted for 49 points. Look for the Bengals to throw short but run long for big yards after the catch thanks to broken tackles and superior matchups.
If the Bengals earn a victory, they will position themselves closer to a first-round bye and apply that pressure on New England. If the new line rolls over the Colts and the running game keeps the offense in a comfort zone, the team will grow even stronger for the long haul. This last quarter is vital for momentum purposes heading into January. Marvin Lewis cannot have his team trickle into the playoffs the way it has the last two years. This should be a great win.
Bengals 20, Colts 10
Mojokong-standing in the end zones for this one.