Last year when the Bengals played the Broncos on Monday Night Football, the stakes were high for Cincinnati. After losing a multitude of players to injury in 2014, the Bengals still had the improbable chance of clinching a playoff berth with a home victory over the Broncos. The miracle happened, cementing one of the signature wins in the Marvin Lewis era, giving Cincinnati its tenth win of the season.
The rematch coming this Monday night has the script flipped where Denver is seeking a playoff lock, while the Bengals have questions at quarterback because of injury. Cincinnati is traveling to face the Broncos, likely going against a team that remembers the embarrassment they received at Paul Brown Stadium in 2014. Whatever the outcome may be, it's going to come down to a number of individual matchups on both sides of the ball to determine the victor.
RT Andre Smith versus OLB Von Miller:
Once upon a time back when the 2011 NFL Draft took place, the Bengals had a critical decision to make in the re-building of their roster. Would quarterback Cam Newton fall to them at No. 4? Or would they have their choice between Miller, cornerback Patrick Peterson and/or A.J. Green? As it turned out, the Bengals' choice between the eventual perennial Pro Bowl players was between Green and Peterson and they went with the wide receiver. Because of the aforementioned success of all players, each team struck success with their respective picks.
Though Miller has had his share of off-field issues, he has been one of the most dominant "edge" players in the league. In just five seasons and 70 games played, Miller has racked up 58 total sacks, including 10 in 2015, helping to lead the charge of the consensus No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL. Miller has four sacks against the Bengals in two games played and usually lines up on the left side of the defense.
Smith has had ups and downs in his career, but is still known as one of the better right tackles in the NFL. But, as is the case with the rest of the behemoth Bengals' line, the "'tweener" types have given the bookend tackles trouble. Whether it was Miller's three sacks back in 2012, or Elvis Dumervil's constant pressure on Cincinnati quarterbacks, Smith has been victimized in his time as a Bengals offensive lineman. If AJ McCarron is to get his second win in as many pro starts, Smith will need to win the point of attack against Miller.
OLB Emmanuel Lamur versus TE Vernon Davis:
Davis is another talented players who has had his share of tumultuous times, but has also often produced on the field. He was traded to Denver just before the league's deadline and has 20 catches for 201 yards, but has zero touchdowns with the Broncos and is recently remembered for a critical drop in a loss against the Raiders. Still, he's an athletic freak who can break a game, if given the opportunity.
While safeties will be tasked with shadowing Davis, Lamur, the Bengals' best coverage linebacker, will also be running with him. Cincinnati's defense has been utilizing a "bend-but-don't-break" mentality, covering screens and deep balls well throughout 2015, but allowing the mid-range passes to gash them. The Bengals' linebackers aren't the best coverage men in the business and Lamur hasn't shown the same pass-coverage prowess he did in years past, but the task is huge this week. Lamur will have help from the likes of Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson, but Cincinnati will need his speed to make sure Davis doesn't make the game get out of reach.
HB Ryan Hewitt versus LB Brandon Marshall:
Those who aren't very familiar with the Broncos maybhear the name "Brandon Marshall" and think of the high-flying days of the Pro Bowl wide receiver. But it's a different Marshall that has Denver excited, in the form of their leading tackler on a defense that has given the rest of the NFL fits. He's stopped the run and made a number of other plays to complement some of the other stars like Miller on the defense. To date, Marshall has 71 tackles and two forced fumbles on a defense ranked first in the league in rushing yards allowed per game.
The Bengals are struggling for consistency running the football, despite having two exciting, former second round picks in their arsenal. Giovani Bernard has a near-five yards per carry average on the year, but limited carries, while Jeremy Hill has had a dreaded "sophomore slump" in 2015. Hue Jackson has been incredibly creative with his offense, but a lack of traditional looks with a true fullback has some thinking it has contributed to Hill's struggles. As a rookie last year, Hill ran all over the Broncos to give the Bengals a playoff berth. If they want to have a chance to pull a tough game off on the road, Hewitt will need to pave the way for both backs on Monday night.
LB Vontaze Burfict versus RB C.J. Anderson:
The Denver Broncos and Gary Kubiak have made superstars out of unknown running backs in their famed zone run blocking scheme. Anderson is the latest, though he has still taken a back seat to Ronnie Hillman. Anderson is the chain-mover capable of grinding out games late because of his running style.
Since Burfict returned to the Bengals' lineup in Week 8 against the Steelers, Burfict has lifted the entire defense. They are currently ranked No. 1 in points allowed and have stifled the running game against all opponents. Brock Osweiler has had some ups and downs, so Denver will likely look to run the football. Even when the defense has looked its best, they have faltered in huge games against the zone scheme, so Burfict's presence against Anderson and Co. will be huge.
DT Geno Atkins versus LG Evan Mathis:
Back in 2009, the Cincinnati Bengals rotated their starting left guard position between Mathis and Nate Livings. The coaching staff seemed to prefer Livings, even though the offense seemed to thrive more under Mathis. Both players left via free agency, with Livings eventually fizzling out in Dallas and Mathis becoming a Pro Bowl player with the Eagles. Unfortunately, Mathis was part of the infamous Chip Kelly purge of Philadelphia's roster and he landed up in Denver. It's been an up-and-down year for the Broncos' offensive line, but Mathis knows how to play football.
He'll be going up against Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is arguably having the best season in his career. Making this matchup even more interesting is Atkins' struggle with his Sickle Cell Trait in the high altitude the state of Colorado provides. Atkins' snaps may be limited because of the issue, so he'll need to make his impact felt on almost every play in which he's on the field. It will be All-Star on All-Star here, making it a high-profile, yet somewhat overlooked battle because it is in the trenches.