The AJ McCarron-led Bengals (11-3) beat the 49ers in San Francisco last week, which is what they had to do in order to keep their hopes of a playoff bye alive. Denver (10-4), their rival for the second seed in the AFC, was beaten by the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a crazy game. Now, Cincinnati has the ability to clinch the AFC North and a bye in the playoffs with a win on Monday.
The problem is Cincinnati faces the best defense in the NFL on Monday Night Football, on the road. But there is a silver lining, the Broncos, after starting 7-0, have gone 3-4 the rest of the way, and have lost two games at home, to the Chiefs and the Raiders. Those two teams were playing their starting quarterback though. So Denver is beatable and the Bengals have a great opportunity to show they can survive without Andy Dalton and also get an easier path in the Playoffs.
We've gone to the tape to take a look at the Broncos' key players you should watch for in the game:
1) Von Miller
Miller is the Broncos' best player and it is not even close. He's one of the best defenders in the NFL as well, able to make plays any time and against any kind of offensive scheme. The 3-4 edge rusher has 10 sacks this season and 59 trough his five-year career thus far, only once failing short of recording double-digit sacks, and that was in a cut short 2013 season.
The main reason why the Broncos have been able to survive their -at times- horrible offense, is the play of their defense, which dominates up front and also has a standout secondary. Miller is the main force behind it. The 6'3", 250 pound linebacker is a natural playmaker, and has all the tools: power, size and hand technique.
This is from his impressive performance against San Diego in Week 13, from SBNation's Stephen White piece on him:
"Miller, lined up on the right side, went right into a bullrush on Hairston and knocked him back a couple of steps. Just when Hairston started to recover and sit down on the move, Miller transitioned to a rip move to escape off Hairston's block to the outside edge. Miller got Rivers on the ground for a loss of 7 yards".
As AJ McCarron won't be as quick as Dalton through his progressions and with plenty of time on Miller's side because of his secondary, the ability of the Bengals' offensive line to stay in front of him will be huge. He has plenty of resources to get home though, as you can see on the play above, and with a bit of regression in Cincy's line as of late, this is going to be the biggest matchup in my opinion.
Cincinnati could probably double team him or keep a running back in for him, because when he has a small edge, Miller can turn that into a nasty sack very quickly.
However, with DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett also in the mix on the edges there is a good chance that the Bengals get burned from the other side if they only pay attention to Von Miller; the same way Whitney Mercilus makes a lot of plays with J.J. Watt drawing heavier attention, for example.
2) Chris Harris Jr.
"Nobody plays more man than we do," the cornerback said, and the we he's referring to, himself and Aqib Talib, are pretty good at what they do. Harris and Talib are one of the best, if not the best, cornerback tandem in the NFL. The 5'10" cornerback had not given up a touchdown playing man defense since November 2013, but last week Antonio Brown got the best of him, even though he had to fight dearly for it.
This play was called for defensive pass interference, but Harris played it perfectly until pushing Brown out of bounds.
It is hard to tell who is this defense's number one cornerback since Talib has been so good too, but Harris defended 43 passes in three years combined prior to this season. If Denver sticks Talib on A.J. Green, it will be up to Harris to shut down Marvin Jones.
Don't get mistaken by his stature, even though he plays anywhere in the lineup, he is still a very strong cornerback who can battle for the football with anyone, even receivers who excel at using their bodies like Michael Crabtree.
Harris has also been pretty good at run support this year and is tied for fourth on the team with 52 total tackles including 43 solo ones.
3) Malik Jackson
The Broncos sure have a lot of guys who can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but Jackson is the one that does it inside. The 3-4 defensive end has 5.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 7 passes batted down thus far in his first season as a full time starter. At 6'5" and 293 pounds he is huge but also very fast and with great burst, which could create havoc against the interior Bengals' offensive linemen.
Just watch how fast number 97 is.
Even if it is a low scoring affair on Monday, Cincy is going to need to throw the football a couple of times, and giving up inside pressure would be a nightmare for AJ McCarron.
But as we saw in San Francisco, the Bengals could try to pound it up the middle again to try and see if Jeremy Hill can burst trough a hole. If this is the plan then Malik Jackson is also somebody to account for, because he is very strong against the run as well. He's one of those few two way 3-4 defensive ends who get paid the big bucks like Muhammad Wilkerson and Jurrell Casey.
4) Brandon Marshall
Yes, another defensive player. This is how good this unit is. Marshall is the perfect 3-4 inside linebacker who excels at tackling and is also a great athlete capable of holding his own in zone coverage. The former scout-team player is now the one that leads the middle of the NFL's best defense.
Last season was a breakout campaign for the 6'1" Las Vegas native, and he's followed through this year with nine tackles for loss, four passes knock down, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and 1 interception thus far. He simply is filling the stat sheet everywhere.
He is going to be key on Monday because the Bengals will be without their security blanket in the middle, Tyler Eifert, and because they will likely rely heavily on their running game.
His running mate Danny Trevathan is also very good, and just more proof that this Broncos defense has few if any holes. Marshall is very smart when it comes to recognizing any play, something to consider given Hue Jackson's big bag of tricks.
5) Demaryius Thomas
Finally, an offensive player. Thomas has benefited from Brock Osweiler's presence the most, scoring four times on 53 targets with him under center, after doing so only once over his first 103 targets in the first nine games of the season with Peyton Manning.
After three monster years, Thomas has cooled off a little bit in 2015, but that has nothing to do with him - he has had some drop issues though. Thomas is still one of the top wide receivers in the NFL and one of the strongest as well.
Thomas has provided Denver with a playmaker on offense even when they could barely get anything going.
This will definitely be a great game to watch on Monday and hopefully will turn out to be a win for the Cincinnati Bengals.