The Cincinnati Bengals still control their own destiny.
With a win over the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, the Bengals will clinch a postseason berth. It also advances Cincinnati toward an exciting storyline next week. Cincinnati heads into Pittsburgh to battle the Steelers in the de facto "AFC North Championship Game". It doesn't matter what happens on Monday. Next week will determine the division. What will be determined on Monday is whether the Bengals will have a postseason berth in their pocket, if they submit another poor offering in the second game against the Steelers, who beat Cincinnati 42-21... in Cincinnati, earlier this month.
That's the setup.
However, few people genuinely believe that the Bengals will win both of these games. You're more likely to find people piecing scenarios together that account for Cincinnati finishing the season at 9-6-1.
Cincinnati is facing a quarterback in Peyton Manning who has never lost to the Bengals. Denver is bringing a strong running game (the Bengals primetime kryptonite) and tough defense with them. If all three phases of Cincinnati's roster aren't prepared and ready to enact years of primetime frustration, this will be decided quickly.
In addition to that, the Bengals have rightfully earned a reputation of being awful during primetime/postseason games, which has been an alarming trend for years. In eight primetime games played since the '11 regular season opener, the Bengals have pieced together an embarrassing 2-6 record. They've also lost all three postseason games that they've played during that stretch.
Yet, if there's a time to change reputations, that moment has arrived. After Monday Night, they will play Sunday Night against the Steelers and then the playoffs, if they quality. Every game played through the end of the season will be shown on national television. If great players want to be great, they have to show up for games like Monday Night Football. "It's a primetime game, so our great players gotta be great," said Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap. "If you want to be great, you have to show up."
Everyone has their theories on why the Bengals struggle during primetime games.
"I think when it's a prime time game we want to win so bad, when one thing goes wrong then some guys fold up and some guys are like (shoot), like damn," safety George Iloka said last month. "We put too much emphasis on it. When it's not a prime time game and we get down we're not nervous it's like (alright) let's fight our way back in it."
Earlier this week, when asked specifically about those primetime struggles, Iloka pointed out the defense struggling to stop the run.
"I would never say we came out flat. I would say that we just didn’t stop the run. One thing that can demoralize a team real quick is not stopping the run, because that’s like you’re getting physically punished and beat up," Iloka said. "That can make you turn flat or lose your spirit. I don’t think any of us came out flat. The common denominator was that we didn’t stop the run, and that can take our spirit away as a defense."
"Only thing I would say is common in both (New England and first Cleveland) games is we didn't stop the run. You stop the run, prime time, non-prime time, Super Bowl or not the Super Bowl you have a better chance to succeed and win so that’s going to be our main objective come Monday: try to stop the run first and do our best job against the pass."
Stop. The. Run.
Here's a look at the Bengals defense on primetime and during the playoffs:
Over the last three primetime/playoff games, Cincinnati's defense has allowed 170 yards rushing or more. The defense hasn't forced more than one turnover since a Monday Night win over the Steelers in 2012 and every loss since the Miami Dolphins has been by multiple possessions.
Then there's Dalton, who has committed 20 turnovers (14 interceptions and six fumbles) in 11 primetime/postseason games.