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NFL Playoffs: Bengals vs. Colts Preview, Expert Picks, Analysis and Predictions

The Bengals are poised for their first playoff win in two decades without even having arguably their best offensive player.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts face off in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. With each team starting their respective playoff run on Sunday, I can't help but notice that all the matchups seem to be falling into place for Cincinnati to get over the postseason hump.

To start, we'll revisit those two key parts of the Colts teams that are struggling: the running game and the offensive line – both of which have a large impact on each other.

These are perhaps two of the largest factors that impacted the Colts' 27-0 shutout of the Bengals in Week 7 this season. In episode 1, Indianapolis had Ahmad Bradshaw, who provided the Colts' offense with a very effective weapon both in the ground game and out of the backfield. Since he was placed on IR with a broken leg, Andrew Luck has noticeably struggled.

With the Colts, it is clear that when the running game falters, the passing game can become stagnant. The rematch this Sunday will see see a Dan Herron and Trent Richardson combination that the Bengals should be able to keep in check.

The Colts' offensive line trouble, due to both injury and ineffective play, comes at a perfect time for a Bengals' pass rush that desperately needs to establish itself early. Carlos Dunlap has been the only truly consistent weapon for the Bengals in that respect of the defense during long stretches this year. Against the Colts, I have confidence that Cincinnati's front is superior to that of the Colts on both sides of the ball. That will go a long way in determining the result.

Speaking on Cincy's O-line versus the Colts' D-line, I can't wait for this matchup, and that isn't because it's going to be intriguing. It's because I fully expect the Bengals to dominate this part of the game. Jeremy Hill was still in limbo with this offense when these two teams met last time.

Now, he's emerged as the No. 1 running back, and a force to be reckoned with at that. Giovani Bernard won't be forgotten either, as he provides the Bengals with an outside and receiving threat out of the backfield, something that completes the tandem quite nicely.

In a shootout, yes, I'll take Andrew Luck over Andy Dalton without a second thought. But luckily, I don't think it will come to that. In fact, the matchup we should be looking at is Luck vs. the Bengals secondary, and likewise with Dalton and the Colts secondary. While, overall, the defensive rankings in this category favor the Colts, I like Cincinnati's chances a lot better.

Luck will be forced to throw early and often without the support of a great running game, and the Bengals secondary is in a nice groove as they enter the playoffs. Against both Peyton and Big Ben, the opportunistic defense has shown the ability to create multiple turnovers, something that eluded them earlier in the season. With that in mind, a smart defensive scheme wins this matchup.

Special teams is an interesting conversation, as the game pits what is arguably the best punter and return threat in the AFC with Pat McAfee and Adam Jones. It will be interesting to see if there are any big-time special team plays that have a large impact on the game, and the battle for field position is likely to play a sizable role.

All being said, I expect the Bengals to win, and that feeling is backed both by gut instinct and, luckily, some situational facts to reinforce it.

For my final prediction, I'm going Cincinnati 23, Indianapolis 21.

What do the experts have to say?

Over at ESPN, the 13 analysts are split with the Colts drawing seven of the picks. The CBS Sports crew has Cincinnati getting the win on the road. Of the eight experts, six believe the Bengals pull off the first playoff win in Marvin Lewis' career.

Pete Prisco is one of them, and here are his key matchups to watch:

Bengals RB Jeremy Hill vs. the Colts run defense: The last time the Bengals played the Colts they lost 27-0. But Hill had just four carries in that game. He's now the primary runner, a bruiser who can handle 20 carries. The Colts were 18th in rush defense, but 23rd in yards per rush. That's not good.

Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap vs. Colts RT Joe Reitz: With Gosder Cherilus out for the season, Reitz, who has started at three different positions, will go in at right tackle this week. He hasn't played since early December because of an ankle injury. Dunlap is the Bengals best pass rusher with eight sacks this season. He has to come up big for the Bengals defense, which finished last in the league in sacks.

At SB Nation, the Bengals are getting plenty of love with five of the seven predictions going their way. The OddsShark computer favors the Colts, giving them a 1-point win.