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Debating Bengals at Broncos: Monday night playoff push

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The Bengals and Broncos battle it out in Denver as both teams fight for a first round bye week in the postseason.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Denver to face the Broncos, it will likely be for the grand prize of a first round playoff bye. The Steelers already lost on Sunday which means the Bengals have officially clinched the AFC North. And yet, with an injured Andy Dalton, Cincinnati would like to give their starter the best chance he can get to heal up his broken thumb before a potential playoff return.

The game is full of intriguing storylines, including the impending battle between two backup quarterbacks. AJ McCarron versus Brock Osweiler, a host of defensive stars on either side, and a Monday Night Football game under the lights should be prime entertainment.

Kyle joins me for our weekly debate, and I'm going to start by offering this: I don't think people should be focusing on McCarron against Osweiler in this match. That's not a matchup. The trending storyline may suggest otherwise, but this is a game of which backup quarterback handles the rush better. And I think we can agree that Cincinnati and Denver both have some monstrous defensive lines. Kyle, who handles the pressure better in this game?

Kyle: Alex, first of all I've got to say that I think the big question isn't which backup quarterback handles the rush better, but which offensive line handles the rush better. That said, I do think that McCarron has it in him to thrive against a strong pass rush more so than Osweiler. Last week when we were wrapping up our coverage of the Bengals/49ers game, I came across the interesting stat that McCarron played really well when blitzed. He was five for six on passes with a touchdown and no interceptions on those throws, as opposed to Dalton who typically plays much better when he is given time to throw.

Osweiler has had similar success, posting a QB rating of 134.2 in Week 12 against the Patriots when being blitzed. For the most part since taking over for Manning, he has performed well when pressured. He is throwing interceptions at a lesser rate and making better decisions than Manning. The main difference between these two is the offensive line's play. The Bengals' line, for all their struggles, don't allow many sacks. Don't tell that to McCarron though. He's been sacked seven times in the last two games alone. I feel like McCarron, less than Osweiler, has a problem with not being in sync with the offensive line yet and it causing issues in the backfield. But, he's still performed fairly well despite all the pressure. For that reason, I think McCarron will probably be a bit more opportunistic against a strong pass rush, whereas Osweiler will need to tread carefully.

Alright, so I know everyone wants to talk about the young backup quarterbacks who are probably future starters in this league, but i'm going to take this discussion in a different direction real quick. Alex, what do you think about each team's running game? Both have two very capable running backs that share touches in the Bengals' Jeremy Hill/Giovani Bernard and the Broncos' C.J. Anderson/Ronnie Hillman). But, many people are also aware of the struggles this season for Hill and Anderson, both of whom are following up very impressive 2014 seasons. How do you think these tandems will affect the games this week, Alex? Will either team be able to effectively establish a ground game to take some of the pressure off?

Alex: I agree, it will be especially interesting to see how the Bengals offensive line handles the Broncos' edge rushers. For as solid as a unit as their O-line looks on paper, they can be inconsistent.

I was simply waiting for you to bring up the run game for this debate, and you're right -- both teams have had very similar situations with their running backs. Both C.J. Anderson of the Broncos and Jeremy Hill of the Bengals have had huge letdown years so far, discounting Hill's 10 touchdowns, of course. So in fact, the running game have largely been paced by Giovani Bernard and Ronnie Hillman, the smaller, more elusive backs among the two tandems. Let me say, first off, that I think if either team is able to establish the run game, it will be Denver. I've really liked Hillman this season. Bernard is good, but not against such a fast defense. That's not to say that I think Hillman will have a breakout game. I'm expecting him to total around 70-80 all-purpose yards, but I don't think Bernard breaks the 60 yard mark. This game comes down to the pass attack from both teams.

My next question is about turnovers. We both know that costly mistakes can make a difference in any game. All things considered between these two teams, which team comes out positive in the turnover margin tonight, and why?

Kyle: I think the turnover margin is going to come down to interceptions, Alex. Fumbles are hard to predict anyway, but I think this week it really comes down to each defense trying to make the other team's young, impressionable quarterback make a big mistake and throw it to the other team. At least in this category, I think the team that does that best will be the Bengals. Why? They've just done it better all year. The Broncos are the top defense in yards allowed, but they only rank about middle of the pack in terms of forcing bad looks and interceptions. The Bengals are tied for third with 19 interceptions on the season.

There hasn't been much of a difference between Osweiler and McCarron on the interceptions front so far. For the most part, each quarterback has about the same frequency of interceptions. McCarron has thrown two picks in two games, whereas Osweiler has thrown four in six games. Those numbers slightly favor Osweiler, but don't forget that McCarron threw both of his picks against Pittsburgh and threw none when he had a full week of practice for San Francisco. When you get right down to it, the difference will be the experience of the defenses playing, and the Bengals are just really good at forcing turnovers in the passing game. Now, like I said, it's hard to predict fumbles, and that goes double this week as the Broncos have been really good at forcing fumbles (T-10th in NFL), but the Bengals are even better at not fumbling the ball (sixth in NFL).  Don't expect to see many if any forced fumbles this week, barring some random fluke play.

Alright Alex, my next question for you is about defense. Which do you think is better? For a defense to allow the fewest yards in the league, or the fewest points in the league? These are the cases for the Broncos and Bengals, respectively. The Bengals have a habit of letting opponents march down the field, but stopping them when it matters. The Broncos, on the other hand, just don't let opponents on to the other side of the field that often. When they do, they aren't quite as good at stopping the score as the Bengals are, but we're dealing in fine margins on that end and that still makes a huge difference in one individual game. Which defensive strategy will come up big this week?

Alex: That's a very close comparison, Kyle. Honestly, either of these defenses can carry a football game, so it's difficult to single out one unit as being better than the other, especially because of their differing strengths.

Overall, I have to go with Denver's defense. Consistency is any football team's best friends, and while the potential for shutdown defensive play is always there for the Bengals, the bend-don't-break strategy doesn't warrant a higher slot than the Broncos defense here. Denver is simply more consistent in nearly every facet -- and while the Bengals are excellent in scoring defense, it's Denver that puts the pressure on opposing offenses in between the respective red zones. I think that, especially when dealing with these two young quarterbacks, this is what will be more important in this game.

So I guess my answer is that because Denver's defense is consistently better, so that's the defense I'm going with. Now for my last question: The Bengals have a few key injuries in this game, but the Broncos dominate in this unfortunate category by sheer numbers listed on the report heading into this game. The majority of those injuries for Denver are listed as probably, but that still means that there are going to be players at potentially less than 100% -- even Osweiler is battling a left shoulder injury (although he's had full practices since Thursday). How do you think injuries play a role in this game?

Kyle: A big X-Factor for the Bengals is Rex Burkhead. He might not be the player who gets the most attention or puts up the best fantasy numbers, but he is the kind of player who most defenses don't prepare for, leading him to be a fantastic wild card receiving option when the offense needs to change it up. He's already caught a touchdown pass from McCarron against the Steelers this season and in two early games he connected with Andy Dalton for a 20+ yard catch in each game, which helped the Bengals to build momentum during their nine game winning streak. For the Bengals' offense, there is no player better poised to make a surprising and effective impact.

For the Broncos, I'm going to bring up a name that Bengals fans might not have heard in years: Andre Caldwell. Not only is Caldwell the Broncos' often-forgotten slot receiver who tends to be ignored in favor of attention to the dynamic receiving tandem of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Don't forget that he will also be the Broncos' primary kick returner this week with Omar Bolden out. The Bengals obviously won't be double teaming Caldwell, but ignoring him could be disastrous.

What about you, Alex? Who do you think is each team's wild card type that could make an unexpected impact this week?

Alex: Nice selections. I'm going to deviate just slightly from the question and pick Hue Jackson for the Bengals. Cincinnati's offensive coordinator faces a plethora of tasks tonight, and that starts with creating a comfortable situation for AJ McCarron. While we've seen his play-calling get very creative, at times, it's also arguably been too much so. When faced with such a dynamic blitzing team - as well as a line that gets significant pressure without sending extra bodies - Jackson will need to draw a careful mask over his play-calling for McCarron to succeed.

For the Broncos, you read my mind. I really like Caldwell, but I won't double-dip. I think Malik Jackson is a player to watch out for. For all of the attention that Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware get, Jackson is a key pass-rusher for the Broncos - someone that can create pressure in a variety of situations. He's one of the every-down backs you have to watch out for at defensive end.

Alright, prediction time! Kyle, who do you have in this Monday Night Football matchup?

Kyle: This game should be a tough matchup for both teams, but I've got to give the edge to the Bengals. The reason for that is a lot to do with the fact that I simply think that McCarron is the better quarterback, but it helps the Bengals' case that they are dealing better on the injury front. The Broncos list 14 players on their injury report, whereas the Bengals only list seven. Sure, not having Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert will hurt the Bengals' offensive capabilities, and George Iloka being doubtful will probably mean that Shawn Williams will start again at strong safety. But, for the most part, those are the only injuries that anyone needs to worry about going into the game.

The Broncos look shredded at safety. Both of their starters are dealing with serious enough injuries that they were listed as 'Questionable', and their primary backup, Omar Bolden, is listed as out. Brock Osweiler has been noted as dealing with a minor shoulder injury and listed as 'Probable', but Peyton Manning being out means that a further aggravation of the injury would have rookie seventh round draft pick, Trevor Siemian, filling the role at starting quarterback. Here's hoping we don't have to worry about further injury scenarios, but it definitely feels like the Bengals are better built to withstand further complications, and that's why I feel confident picking them to win this week.

Final score: Bengals 17, Broncos 13

Alex: I'm going Denver here. I had a really tough time picking between these two teams, mainly because there are so many variables with injuries and young quarterbacks. However, I think the Broncos have a bit more of an upside at home here, and I like Osweiler - that's certainly not to say I don't like McCarron, but I also like Denver's defensive line better than Cincinnati's.

This will be a close game, and it has all the potential to be a very low-scoring game, such as what you've predicted. However, I'm going to ride the chance that a couple of opportune turnovers and some big plays create a larger spread on the scoreboard tonight.

Final score, Broncos 23, Bengals 20