Part of what makes the NFL so popular, aside from the fun nature of the game itself, are the storylines and history between franchises. Though the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t had the level of postseason and overall championship success of other teams, historical context with The Queen City and NFL squads run deep.
Currently, the talk of all NFL folks is the AFC North rivalry between the Bengals and Steelers, but with Cincinnati losing the first head-to-head contest of 2016, focus is now shifting elsewhere. An AFC conference foe that heads to town on Sunday has also had some storied battles with Cincinnati. The last two matchups have particularly been interesting, with both teams grabbing unlikely victories.
In 2014, the last time the Bengals hosted the Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati had one of its best wins in the Marvin Lewis era on the Monday Night Football stage. Lewis and his squad finally figured out how to beat Peyton Manning, with some help from the elements, and clinched a playoff berth in front of a national audience. A year later, Brock Osweiler pulled an unlikely victory away from AJ McCarron in a come-from-behind overtime win, cementing the Bengals’ impending matchup with the Steelers in the 2015 Wild Card round.
Think back a bit further, though. For those old enough to remember “The Lost Decade” preceding Lewis’ arrival, many can recall Corey Dillon’s then-NFL rushing record afternoon against Denver in 2000. After what unfortunately became a trend before 2003, the Bengals started off 0-6 before hosting the Broncos in PBS’s inaugural season as Cincinnati’s home stadium. Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell combined to go 2/14 for 34 passing yards, while Dillon ran for 278 yards and gave the team its first win a season in which they would finish 4-12.
Yet for all of their odd battles, old AFL ties and free agency player swaps, the Broncos have something the Bengals don’t, times three: a championship. Cincinnati has seemed to be oh-so-close at times, whether it was Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer or Andy Dalton at the helm, but the football gods have tended to favor other franchises like the one that hails from the Rocky Mountains.
If there’s one solace Bengals fans can take in their lack of success as compared to Denver’s last 20 years of success, it’s in the career paths of two aging, embattled quarterbacks. Both Manning and John Elway were known as regular season savants, but many coined them as chokers in the biggest games of their respective Hall of Fame careers. That’s a reputation that also stays with Palmer 14 years into his NFL career and a label becoming commonplace when Dalton enters water cooler conversations.
But this Sunday isn’t about championships or rivalry-driven redemption. It’s about getting through one of the more difficult stretches of the schedule with a winning record and the re-assertion of AFC dominance.
Carrying the Broncos to a seemingly improbable 2-0 record is Von Miller and his relentless defense. After the loss of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan, as well as any semblance of a starting-caliber signal-caller in free agency, many believed this would be an early-season cake walk for the Bengals as they hoped to charge to a similar 8-0 start we saw in 2015. However, Trevor Siemian has made just enough plays to aid the defense’s big play-ability and get the Broncos back on top of the NFL world, just one season removed from a Super Bowl 50 win.
So, are the Broncos lucky? Are they riding a game plan that isn’t sustainable? Or, can they ground-and-pound their way through the Bengals and the rest of the AFC once again this year?
While the Bengals might be able to ride the emotional wave of a home crowd for the first time since January, both teams will need to be at the top of their games if they want to pull out a win. For the Broncos, Siemian will need to be both elusive of pressure and efficient with the football through the air. He’s been able to do the former in the first two games, but not necessarily the latter.
Whether it has been uncalled holding penalties or loss of gap control, the formidable Bengals defensive line has just two sacks in as many games. For reference, they netted 42 last season, so one of the keys to this game might be in Cincinnati doing their best impression of the Broncos defense. After all, if both Dalton and Siemian end up facing similar pressure, most would bet that the Bengals veteran would be the one to trust in that situation.
Like the previous two games for the Bengals, this one seems to be a coin flip, in terms of picking a winner. Both teams have talent all over the place, and while Denver tips the defensive scale in their favor because of their penchant for big plays, the Bengals have the upper-hand at the most important position on the field.
There are a ton of fun individual matchups to watch on Sunday, too. Former first round tackle Cedric Ogbuehi will be lining up against Miller, if Tyler Eifert miraculously returns this week, Denver’s defense has to be on high alert, while Aqib Talib and new daddy A.J. Green is another marquee duel.
However, when you look at it closely, the tale of the tape might actually be in the performances of the running backs. Gary Kubiak loves to run the ball in his zone-block system, while the Bengals employ two extremely talented, but sometimes-underachieving backs in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Can rookie offensive coordinator Ken Zampese finally create a formula for run game success? Will C.J. Anderson carve up the Bengals’ run defense that is currently ranked dead-last in the NFL?
If you’ve watched the NFL for any reasonable length of time, you know that this is around the time that the cream rises to the top, pretenders separate themselves from pretenders and yadda yadda yadda. While I definitely think both of these teams will be in the AFC playoff picture as the regular season winds down, I’m just inclined to think this is the week Siemian becomes a liability for Denver.
Bengals 27, Broncos 20
AC — Who’s hosting this Southern California boy at their PBS tailgate this Sunday?