Following a bounce back win over the 49ers last week, the Bengals head to Denver this week for a game with huge playoff implications. Interestingly enough, this clash between two top 10 teams features teams starting young backup quarterbacks with the hopes of returning their veteran starters for the playoffs. For the Broncos, it's Brock Osweiler starting for the future hall of famer, Peyton Manning. For the Bengals, it's AJ McCarron starting for Andy Dalton who looked to be on track to finish off an MVP caliber season before being forced to take some time off with a thumb injury.
If there was one game that the Bengals wanted to win this season, it's two weeks ago against the Steelers. Unfortunately, that didn't happen for various reasons. But, they can still put the season back on track by clinching the division and the AFC's #2 seed with a win in Denver this week. A win with a Patriots' loss will also keep the Bengals' distant hopes of wrestling the #1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs away from the Patriots. It would require the Bengals beating the Bronocs this week and the Ravens next week with the Patriots losing to the Jets this week and the Dolphins next week. It's a stretch, but still something to be potentially excited about.
Last week: 24-14 win vs San Francisco 49ers.
The Bengals won last week, but it definitely wasn't the prettiest affair. Their offensive line, in particular, displayed some major issues. Those who have been following the team all season won't be surprised to see that Russell Bodine (-5.2) and Andre Smith (-4.5) had some of the worst grades on the team. For the young McCarron, it resulted in four sacks and five QB hits.
Other than avoiding the pressure, he had a very good game. He exited the game with a touchdown, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 115.6. In terms of his individual performance, his overall impact didn't see too much of a decline from Dalton's. They'll need a similar or better performance this week if they want to take down a Broncos team that will be fighting to maintain control of their division race.
Last week: 34-27 loss vs Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brock Osweiler came out of the starting gate against the Steelers guns blazing. Ronnie Hillman fumbled early and set up the Steelers in position for an easy touchdown. But, Osweiler helped the team get things together by leading three touchdown drives before the end of the half. The Broncos went into the locker room with a 21-10 lead at halftime. But, that's where things fell apart, though, as he wasn't able to find any sort of consistency in the second half, finally throwing a critical interception near the end of the fourth quarter that led to the go-ahead touchdown for the Steelers.
Osweiler finished the game with an overall negative grade last week (-0.2), but he's got quite a few players around him to help get the offense going. In particular, Evan Mathis (+22.6) has been having a fantastic season that ranks fifth highest among NFL guards. There's also C.J. Anderson who has graded well in pass blocking (+1.6) and rushing (+2.1) for a very impressive overall grade (+3.9). That's in contrast to the Ronnie Hillman who has been graded poorly in the run game (-1.1) and pass blocking (-2.4) for a very poor overall grade (-6.0)
Keys to the Game
Although it is clear that Andy Dalton has more success under center, the team seems to be in good hands with AJ McCarron. Pro Football Focus noticed his impressive first start against the 49ers in which he recorded the seventh best grade of all QBs in Week 15. Like Osweiler, McCarron completed five of six passes over 10 yards, but he didn't have the kind of second half drop off that Oseweiler had. He was also five of six when he was blitzed, which is a significant improvement from the previous week when he recorded a substantially negative grade (-2.8) when facing pressure.
Chances are McCarron will need to be on his "A" game this week, as he will be facing off against a Pro Bowl CB tandem in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. Harris put together a particularly poor performance last week (-4.5), but his overall season grade (+11.9) still ranks eighth overall among qualified CBs this year. Combine that with Pro Bowl alternate safety T.J. Ward and that's a scary secondary for an inexperienced quarterback to face off against.
Run the Rock
This was one of the keys to the game last week and it didn't work out too well. The Bengals won by 10 points, but Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard only combined for 64 yards rushing, although Hill managed the punch the ball in the endzone twice. Outside of scoring opportunities, Hill played pretty badly. PFF noted him as the worst running back of the week, saying that his two touchdowns barely mean anything because he didn't force any missed tackles, dropped his lone pass, and also fumbled the ball at one point which breathed life into a struggling 49ers team.
It's really a shame, because the one-two punch of Giovani Bernard (+75.3) and Jeremy Hill (+65.8) rank as PFF's sixth best RB tandem in the NFL. It's been the same story all year - Bernard eats up most of the field (4.9 yards per run; fifth among qualified RBs) and Hill is the punishing power back who also doubles as a touchdown vulture (10 rushing touchdowns; leads the NFL). McCarron seems completely capable of leading the offense so far, but the Bengals have a serious weapon in the backfield with this tandem. If they can utilize the pair against the Broncos, they should win handily.
Hit 'em Hard
The Broncos' offense is vulnerable, ranking 25th in the NFL of all teams in overall grade (-77.4). With their defense playing so strongly this year (+180.9; first in the NFL), there's a good chance that the Bengals will have to win this game by simply hitting harder than the Broncos. Intimidating the offense shouldn't be too difficult with tough players like Vontaze Burfict, who had a great game last week (+4.7).
Burfict was in position all game to make the big play, particularly in coverage, and that will be a key factor against the Broncos this week. Don't forget about Geno Atkins, who is expected to play this week despite his sickle cell trait. Atkins has been one of the hardest hitters and most efficient players on defense this season. His presence is sure to disrupt the Denver offensive line, even if he is unable to play at 100 percent.