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Bengal Bytes (12/25): Merry who dey!

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Chris Crocker shows how much AJ McCarron has improved. T.J. Ward returns to practice for the Broncos. See what former Patriots are saying about the Panthers, and the latest development with Alex Mack.

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To the Cincinnati Bengals, the playoffs have already started
The NFL calendar might say it's only Week 16 of the regular season, but don't tell the Cincinnati Bengals that. Some of their players have already convinced themselves the regular season has ended, and the postseason has already begun. To them, Monday night's showdown at Sports Authority Field in Denver will have the look, feel, smell and energy of a playoff game. They just hope it has a vastly different outcome than their recent, actual, playoff games.

Three Bengals starters don't practice; roster move made
Three Bengals starters did not participate in Thursday's practice, while two others who weren't dressed to practice on Wednesday were full participants.

Geno Atkins cleared despite sickle cell trait
During the 2011 playoffs, then-Steelers safety Ryan Clark sat out a game at Denver due to concerns over how his condition carrying the sickle cell trait, a genetic abnormality affecting red blood cells, would handle high altitude. He sat out a game in Denver the following season as well as a precaution because in 2007 he lost his spleen in gall bladder due to pain caused playing in the thin air with his condition.

Bengals Film Session: Gauging McCarron's improvement
This week, Crocker jumps onto the iPad to examine the first start for AJ McCarron. Last week, Crocker offered criticism of the rookie's first meaningful snaps, pointing out struggles with disguised coverage and missed opportunities. This week, Crocker looks at how a week of study helped his game step up.

Bengals vs. Broncos: Full Cincinnati Game Preview
Cincinnati Bengals news, rumors, scores, schedules, predictions, picks against the spread, free agent updates, power rankings, mock drafts and more

Behind Enemy Lines

Broncos will check Peyton Manning's progress in Saturday workout
Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Thursday the team will evaluate quarterback Peyton Manning’s progress in his rehabilitation from an injured left foot at the end of the week. Manning had returned to practice last week – he took part in last Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices as a limited participant -- but was held out of last Friday’s practice because of soreness in the foot. Manning suffered a tear in his plantar fascia near his left heel in the Broncos’ Nov. 8 loss in Indianapolis.

'Santa Claus' Von Miller's gifts to Denver Broncos teammates: Underwea
Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller's potential free-agent bonanza is still over the horizon just a bit, but Miller is still quick to dispense the holiday cheer to his teammates.

T.J. Ward practices for second straight day
The Broncos have been beset by injuries at safety of late, but this week has brought some better news for one of the ailing defensive backs. T.J. Ward practiced on Wednesday for the first time since injuring his ankle against the Patriots in Week 12.

Random Bytes

As Panthers Seek 16-0, Former Patriots Reflect on What It Takes to Stay Perfect
The Carolina Panthers have defended 925 snaps this season, and been on offense for 946 of them. They’ve held the ball for an average of 32 minutes, 37 seconds per game, the league’s second-highest total, and a third-ranked defense has allowed only 314.9 yards each week.

Atlanta Falcons RB Tevin Coleman slips in shower, in concussion protocol
Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Tevin Coleman slipped in the shower at the team facility Wednesday and is going through the concussion protocol, coach Dan Quinn said Thursday. Coleman, a third-round draft pick from Indiana, was the team's starting running back at the beginning of the season until he suffered a fractured rib in Week 2. Devonta Freeman then took over as the starter.

Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts coach, disappointed by T.Y. Hilton comments about offense
Colts coach Chuck Pagano did not care for receiver T.Y. Hilton's critical comments about offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's play calling earlier this week.

Browns' Mack on opt-out clause: Winning is important
Browns center Alex Mack has the power to opt out of his contract this offseason. Will the Pro Bowl pivot ditch Cleveland for brighter shores? Here's one gem of a clue: "I will say that winning is really important to me," Mack said Wednesday, per Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.