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NFL Week 8 Colts at Bengals game preview: Gunning for mediocrity

A battle of a couple of two-win teams takes place on Sunday. The winner will jockey themselves back into the AFC playoff picture.

NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

As every week passes by on the NFL calendar, each gains more importance. Such is the case for the Colts and the Bengals as they face off this week, as both sit at 2-4 and are clamoring to get back into playoff discussions.

Given the high-profile and sometimes-often lopsided losses both Indianapolis and Cincinnati have suffered this year, most will laugh at the notion that this game has playoff implications. Still, with a relatively-open AFC, every conference win counts at this point.

There are a lot of parallels when it comes to recent incarnations of the Colts and the Bengals. Both Chuck Pagano and Marvin Lewis cut their NFL coaching teeth as defensive coordinators in Baltimore, both squads have had disappointing seasons after high expectations and both have seemingly preferred to stack up the explosive skill positions instead of the meat of a roster.

Indianapolis has often eschewed the drafting of offensive linemen with high picks to protect Andrew Luck, who has been banged up since his NFL arrival in 2012. Instead, they’ve drafted pass-catching weapons to aid him, with many of the recent picks (Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Phillip Dorsett) in different uniforms this year.

The Bengals have made a similar commitment to Andy Dalton, surrounding him with weapons and protection on offense. However, it has been the free agency attrition since the 2016 offseason that has seen wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, as well as offensive stalwarts Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth all leave.

And, one could say the Bengals left Dalton out in the wind with those departures. Dalton is a solid quarterback, most who look through an objective lens understand that he lifts his level of play when there are a number of solid playmakers around him.

The losses of these players over the past two springs have led the Bengals to take steps back on offense. Their offensive line has massively struggled and Dalton’s confidence level has wavered. It’s no coincidence that Cincinnati has had an 8-13-1 record over the past year and a half.

But, if you thought the Bengals’ allowance of 19 sacks through six games was an ominous statistic, the Colts’ line is the worst in the NFL in the category, with 29 given up on the year. After getting blanked in an important game against the Steelers, Cincinnati’s defensive front is licking their chops this week.

Despite that one category, Indianapolis just isn’t very good in many other aspects this year. So much so, that Pagano has come under fire and is a possible candidate to lose his job if the Colts don’t start turning things around. In fact, their only two wins this year have come against two other winless squads in the Browns and 49ers.

Their 31st-ranked pass defense has been awful and some believe that John Ross’ return to the lineup could pay huge dividends this week.

Additionally, the Colts have the 31st-ranked overall defense this year, rank the same against the pass and are 26th against the run. So, one is inclined to believe that some of Cincinnati’s dry spells on offense, even under Bill Lazor, should dissipate on Sunday.

However, A.J. Green will have his hands full in Week 8, even with the Colts’ overall defensive struggles. Vontae Davis has missed two games, but he’s been great at limiting damage from receivers he has faced so far this year.

Unfortunately, Cincinnati hasn’t proved that they are a much better squad. They beat a sound Bills team, but, like the Colts, only have a victory over Cleveland as the other notch in their 2017 belt.

Marvin Lewis has had success with familiar foes in his 15-year tenure as the Bengals’ head coach, but there are also a number of teams Lewis in which Lewis has struggled to get wins. Indy is one of them.

The Bengals are just 2-6 against the Colts since his arrival in The Queen City. Yes, one of the wins was a nice one over Luck in 2013, but the other was against career backup Curtis Painter, while Lewis’ Bengals never beat Peyton Manning when he wore a Colts uniform.

Cincinnati will be facing another former backup quarterback in Jacoby Brissett this week. He’s only thrown three touchdowns against three interceptions this year, but also adds that frustrating ability to make plays with his legs. He has three more touchdowns on the ground, so Paul Guenther’s unit will finally need to be able to show they can contain a scrambler.

They also inexplicably struggle against signal-callers they haven’t faced before—particularly the nimble types. Guenther will need to make sure his defenders set the edge and disallow Brissett to make huge plays with his legs.

I’m not confident in the Bengals right now, for a variety of reasons. However, I really don’t think Indianapolis has the nearly the same overall roster talent as Cincinnati. The Bengals are at home and are probably angry at what transpired last week, fueling them to inch closer to .500.

We could look back at this game and note that this is where one team’s season starts to turn around and the other starts looking to the 2018 offseason with five losses at the midway point of the year. It’s also one that could start to spell the official ends of the career of either Pagano or Lewis.

Colts 23, Bengals 24

AC — Ready for 2018 to begin.