The penultimate game of the Bengals' 2015 regular season has become their most important. Win and earn a first round bye. More important than the bye is an additional week of time for Andy Dalton's hand to heal and get a few other ailing players including George Iloka, Adam Jones, and Tyler Eifert healthy. This showdown is likely going to play out very differently than any of us could have anticipated before the season. If you predicted that AJ McCarron and Brock Osweiler would be dueling for a first round bye, give yourself a huge pat on the back... And also give me some lottery numbers for this week.
Ironically, these teams are very similar now that they are both without their starting quarterbacks. They will both be putting the majority of the pressure to win on their fantastic defenses. Denver ranks 1st in yards allowed while Cincinnati is third. The gap from first to third is 803 yards though, which goes to show just how stingy Denver has been. The most important defensive statistic is points allowed per game, and Cincinnati rains supreme there, yielding just 17.4 points per game while Denver is allowing 18.5. Denver ranks second in the NFL with 47 sacks while, Cincinnati has produced 38. Cincinnati's +9 take/give ratio trumps Denver's even zero.
When you have those stats in one hand, and two backup quarterbacks running the offenses, I think we will all be expecting a low-scoring affair. In a contest like that, these are the Bengals players who can make a huge difference this week.
1.) Geno Atkins
A hot topic of discussion has been how much Geno Atkins will play tonight due to him carrying the sickle cell trait. Although he will be suiting up, Marvin Lewis and the Bengals' staff will be keeping tabs on him. Luckily, the Bengals employ a pretty deep rotation across the entire defensive line which should help to minimize the risks Atkins faces. When he is out there, Atkins can be the guy to spark a game-changing play, whether he is creating havoc in the run game, or applying pressure to Osweiler, who holds on to the ball much longer than Peyton Manning.
2.) Shawn Williams
At least from my perspective, Williams has quietly been outplaying George Iloka since he has been starting in his place due to a groin injury. While Iloka certainly is a great player, Williams has done everything Iloka has while doing the one thing Iloka never really has: make big plays. In his limited time this year, Williams has made two interceptions at very crucial times. While Denver's offense may not be particularly scary right now, they do still have an incredibly talented wide receiver corps. The threat of them putting together a 14 play, 80-yard drive together isn't great, which places more emphasis on containing big plays. Williams has shown that he is a worthy counterpart to his Pro Bowl stablemate Reggie Nelson. A big play that puts a handicapped Cincinnati offense in good field position would be huge in this game.
3.) Marvin Jones
Conversely, the Bengals' offense is a heckuva lot less likely to engineer drives consistently with McCarron at the helm. A big play or two will likely be needed to get the Bengals where they need to be tonight. With A.J. Green likely being the focal point of a very talented Broncos secondary, the onus might fall on Jones to be a gamebreaker. He has certainly shown the capability, though he has seemingly disappeared for chunks of time this season.
4.) Dre Kirkpatrick
If you've been following Kirkpatrick on Twitter, you'd know that he is excited to face the team that he had the best game of his career against last year. It's certainly a lot to expect of someone, but if Kirkpatrick replicates his 2014 performance against the Broncos, the Bengals will likely be having a good night. Regardless, Kirkpatrick will be tasked with covering a multitude of talented receivers. Being able to limit Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas should render this Broncos defense useless. If those guys are able to take the top off of the Bengals' defense, the primetime woes that have haunted Cincinnati over the past few years will continue.
5.) Russell Bodine
At this point in the season, I think we all know that Bodine isn't going to give us some Herculean performance tonight. While that is certainly not expected of him by any rational person, a solid performance from him would do wonders for the Bengals' passing and rushing attacks. Pressure up the middle can easily derail any quarterback's performance, but especially that of a young backup starting in primetime. Getting a good push up the middle would hopefully also allow the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill to make up for a woeful performance last week. After an all-around poor showing by the offensive line against San Francisco, that unit should be looking to rebound. It will all start at the center position.