We all know the narrative - The Bengals suck in big games. As much as I would like to say that is overblown, it is not. When the Bengals are on the big stage, they come up small and until they prove that narrative wrong, we are going to have to hear about it ad nausea.
Here is what to look for on Monday night when Peyton Manning and the Broncos visit the Queen City...
When the Broncos Run the Ball:
Broncos Run Offense: 111.3 YPG (16th); 4.0 YPA (t-21st); 11 TDs (t-11th)
Bengals Run Defense: 124.8 YPG (24th); 4.3 YPA (t-20th); 15 TDs (t-28th)
The stats say the Broncos are an average team in terms of running the football, but as we all know, sometimes stats can be deceiving. This is one of those situations. After the Broncos Week 11 matchup against the Rams, the Broncos changed their offensive approach. In the Broncos first 10 games, they averaged just 89.9 YPG (7-3). In their last four games, the Broncos have gotten away from their high flying passing attack and focused on the ground game and it has worked. The Broncos have gone 4-0 since their loss to the Rams and have nearly doubled their YPG average (164.8).
The Bengals will need to stop CJ Anderson. Anderson is not a big back (5'8" 224 pounds), but has found a role on this Broncos team. After accounting for just 39 carries, 201 yards and 0 touchdowns in the Broncos first 10 games, Anderson has 109 carries for 478 and 4 touchdowns in the Broncos last four games, including two 160+ yard games.
The Bengals run defense, which has been very solid since the return of Rey Maualuga and Brandon Thompson, will have their work cut out for them. To have a chance against Peyton Manning, it is imperative that the Bengals take away the run game. If not, Manning will keep the Bengals guessing on defense and pick them apart.
The good news for the Bengals? Since Maualuga and Thompson returned, the Bengals have held four of their five opponents to under 75 yards rushing (66.7 YPG and 3.1 YPA). The only game over (Pittsburgh - 193) saw 53 of those yards come on one play - a play in which the Bengals had four backup lineman on the field.
When the Broncos Throw the Ball:
Broncos Pass Offense: 289.4 YPG (4th); 7.9 YPA (5th); 37 TDs (2nd);11 INTs (t-11th); 14 Sacks (1st); 105.3 Passer Rating (3rd); 66.4% CMP (6th)
Bengals Pass Defense: 233.6 YPG (11th); 6.4 YPA (t-4th); 14 TDs (t-1st); 14 INTs (t-11th); 18 Sacks (31st); 76.4 Passer Rating (3rd); 59.6% CMP (7th)
Talk about going from one extreme to the other. Last week the Bengals got an overwhelmed and overhyped rookie making his first start and they made him look silly. This week they get arguably the best quarterback of all-time, and a guy who will make that same defense look silly if they aren't careful.
Peyton Manning is 8-0 all-time against the Bengals with 20 touchdowns, just five interceptions and a 106.8 passer rating. Some have speculated something is wrong with Manning because his numbers have been down the last four games - don't listen. Manning's numbers are down because after the loss in Saint Louis, the Broncos were reminded of their Super Bowl failure in 2013 - throwing 50+ times is exciting to watch, but it doesn't win against good defenses. In their Week 11 loss in Saint Louis, the Broncos threw it 54 times for 389 yards and ran it just 10 times for 28 yards... They lost 22-7. In fact, in the Broncos first 10 games, Manning averaged 330.1 YPG, had 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In the last four, Manning is averaging just 210.5 YPG and has just eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Despite the gaudy numbers in the first 10 games, the Broncos went 7-3. Since throwing less and running more, the Broncos have gone 4-0 in their last four. The Broncos believe they have found their formula for success - run the ball, control the clock and let Manning pick and choose when to beat the defense.
While the Bengals strength is indeed their secondary, it won't matter if they can't stop the run and get some pressure on Manning. The key for the Bengals pass defense will actually be stopping the run, and doing so with just seven in the box. If the Bengals can stop the Broncos run game without having to sacrifice a safety, they can key in on Manning and the receivers and hopefully make Denver one dimensional. However, a defensive game plan designed around forcing Manning to beat you is dangerous.
The potential loss of Lamur will hurt, especially with a tight end like Julius Thomas. The Bengals will need Thompson and Atkins to bring some pressure directly up the middle and make Manning uncomfortable. If not, Manning will pick the Bengals apart like he has done on so many occasions.
When the Bengals Run the Ball:
Bengals Run Offense: 130.3 YPG (6th); 4.3 YPA (t-11th); 18 TDs (t-1st)
Broncos Run Defense: 71.6 YPG (2nd); 3.4 YPA (2nd); 8 TDs (t-9th)
This is pure strength versus strength. The Bengals have climbed to sixth in run offense, but the Broncos come to town with the second ranked run defense and possibly the biggest man in the NFL (Terrance Knighton). Russell Bodine will have his hands full with Knighton and will be key to the Bengals getting the run game going. Knighton will likely disrupt the Bengals utilization of Jeremy Hill to run up the middle, so the Bengals will need to find ways to get Hill - and especially Bernard - outside to negate Knighton.
While the Broncos are the second ranked defense, there are some questions about the validity of that ranking. The Broncos will be playing without two starting linebackers (Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall) and the Bengals may be able to find success if they can get their lineman to the second level. The other question mark surrounding this run defense is how much they have been tested. The Broncos have had the second least amount of run plays called against them, just 294.
Regardless of Knighton and the Bengals number two ranking, the Bengals will test this run defense and their success, or lack thereof, may very well determine the outcome of the game. Only six teams have run the ball more than the Bengals' 426 attempts and it is fair to say the Broncos have not faced a one-two punch like Hill and Bernard.
If the Bengals can move the ball on the ground Monday night, they can keep the ball away from Manning and doing so will give them a puncher's chance at winning this one.
When the Bengals Throw the Ball:
Bengals Pass Offense: 218.1 YPG (23rd); 7.2 YPA (t-18th); 16 TDs (28th); 14 INTs (t-21st); 20 Sacks (4th); 83.7 Passer Rating (24th): 63.4% CMP (14th)
Broncos Pass Defense: 237.8 YPG (16th); 6.1 YPA (1st); 26 TDs (t-26th); 16 INTs (8th); 38 Sacks (6th); 83.4 Passer Rating (9th); 62.8 % CMP (t-13th)
Last week, the Bengals ran the ball with extreme success and therefore had a number of big play opportunities in the passing game. Unfortunately, Dalton managed to hit on exactly zero of those plays and threw a bad pick on one. Fortunately for the Bengals, they played the Browns. That won't cut it the next two weeks against the Broncos and Steelers.
The Broncos have two quality corners (Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib) and a promising rookie (Bradley Roby) to go along with TJ Ward. So when Dalton throws, he will need to be on top of his game. It not, the Broncos can pick it off with the best of them (16 interceptions).
Another key in the passing game will be the Bengals offensive line. While they have been strong on the season (20 sacks - 4th), they have struggled a bit recently with the injuries at right tackle. The Bengals line will need to be in sync as the Broncos have two players with double digit sacks (Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware). Look for the Bengals to utilize Benard a bunch in the short passing game and on screen plays in an effort to negate the Broncos pass rush.
While I think Green and company will hold their own against the Broncos secondary, I have some concerns with the line and the usual concerns with Dalton.
Kickoff Returns: Broncos: 21.6 Avg (26th); 0 TD; Bengals: 26.8 Avg (5th); 0 TD
Punt Returns: Broncos: 7.4 Avg (t-21st); 0 TD; Bengals: 9.9 Avg (10th); 0 TD
Kickers: Broncos: Connor Barth: 11/11 (100.0% - t-1st); Long 50 yds
Bengals: Mike Nugent: 22/28 (78.6% - t-17th); Long 49 (1 blocked)
Punters: Broncos: Britton Colquitt: NET 39.2 (t-18th); Inside 20: 23 (38.3%); TB: 2 (3.3%)
Bengals: Kevin Huber: NET 45.1 (1st); Inside 20: 26 (40.0%); TB: 4 (6.2%)
Kick Coverage: Broncos: 24.7 Avg (23rd); 0 TD; Bengals: 24.4 Avg (22nd); 0 TD
Punt Coverage: Broncos: 9.9 Avg (25th); 1 TD; Bengals: 5.1 Avg (2nd); 0 TD
Since being brought in mid-year to replace the ineffective Brandon McManus, Connor Barth has been perfect (11/11), but that is about all that has been perfect in the Broncos' special teams play. The Broncos rank in the bottom half of every other special teams category and the bottom third in most. The Bengals, on the other hand, excel at special teams and are top 10 in nearly every category, including possessing the top punter. The Bengals have a big advantage in this phase of the game and a big special teams play would go a long way in helping the Bengals take down an opponent like Denver. Adam Jones has been quiet as of late, but the bright lights of Monday night are just the type of game for Jones to break out in.
John Fox has 216 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .573 career winning percentage (118-88), 5 division titles in 12 years, a 8-6 career playoff record (.615), 1 AFC Championship, 1 NFC Championship, and 2 Super Bowl appearances. While Fox has a knock against him that his teams underperform in the playoffs, his teams have reached the Super Bowl - a lot different than Marvin's knock of, well never winning a playoff game.
Marvin Lewis is going for his 100th career win as a coach. He has 190 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .526 career winning percentage (99-89-2), 3 division titles in 11 years, and an impressive 0-5 playoff record. For those of you counting at home, that is still a playoff winning percentage of .000.
Key(s) to the Game:
There are two in this game: 1) Keep Manning in check and 2) Don't fold under the bright lights. These are easier said than done. If the Bengals can make Manning resemble a human quarterback and simply play the way they are capable of playing, they have a good chance on Monday.
Until the Bengals show me they can win this type of game, I have to pick against them in big games. That being said, I think it will be a good and entertaining game with the Broncos pulling away late.
Broncos 27, Bengals 17