With a record like 3-6 entering Week 11 of an NFL season, talk of the postseason seems almost sacrilege. Yet, in the somewhat-weak 2017 AFC, both the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals, who both currently sport said record, have a pulse.
As they face each other this week, both are hitting major losing skids. The Broncos started the season looking like one of the best teams in the league, shooting out to a 3-1 record with wins against the Chargers, Cowboys and Raiders. They’ve since lost five straight, with the point differential averaging 19.4 points in the 0-5 stretch.
Cincinnati is on their own 1-3 stretch since the bye, with the lone win coming at the hands of the 3-7 Colts. Did we mention that that the margin of the Bengals’ victory against Indianapolis was by one point?
When you look at the respective rosters of both the Broncos and Bengals, “underachievement” is the proper adjective to use. While Gary Kubiak has a Super Bowl 50 win to his name, his team missed the playoffs in 2016 and is looking to punch their ticket for Caribbean vacations, as their counterparts battle for the Lombardi Trophy in January.
The parallels among these two teams at the moment are uncanny. While the Bengals haven’t employed the quarterback carousel that Denver has this year, questions are arising at the position in the Queen City.
In addition to Andy Dalton being under the microscope, in terms of looking at the years ahead, fans have broken out the pitchforks and torches for other key figures in the franchise. Marin Lewis, Paul Guenther, Bill Lazor and Paul Alexander have come under fire, given the team’s struggles the past two seasons and their respective failures to develop the young players they have hung their hats on for the future.
Meanwhile, after John Elway went all in by grabbing Peyton Manning in 2012 and getting the aforementioned championship, he has yet to find an answer to the most important position on his football team. Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian have started the past 26 post-Peyton games under center, while 2016 first round pick, Paxton Lynch, hasn’t been ready to take over just yet.
If we’re looking at personnel similarities, the fact that former Bengals assistant coach, Vance Joseph, is now facing the Bengals as the Broncos head coach continues to show the recent growth of Marvin Lewis’ coaching tree. And while defensive tackles aren’t always a focal point of a game, Domata Peko and Geno Atkins bring interesting storylines this Sunday.
Peko, of course, was with the Bengals for 11 seasons from 2006-2016. While fans soured on him toward the end of his tenure, he remains one of the more productive and well-liked players the team has employed.
Atkins, who is paving his way to a Hall of Fame career, is having another solid campaign in 2017. He has six sacks this year, but could very well be limited this week, due to the high altitude having an effect on the sickle cell trait he possesses.
Regardless of it all, both teams can make a late push back into the playoff picture with a win on Sunday. A strong argument could be made that, if whichever team wins and can somehow make the playoffs, said coach might have pulled off one of the better seasons in their respective resume. That will be a tall task though.
On offense, Cincinnati has been anemic. They are last in the NFL in overall yards per game, 28th in passing and last in the league in running the football. Even though there has been massive free agency attrition and coaching turnover on that side of the ball, the team has many high draft picks to remedy the losses.
Since 2011, the Bengals have spent five first round picks and six second round picks to replenish the offense. Yet, because of injuries, ineffectiveness and coaching issues, a lot of those players haven’t reached their full potential.
One of those second round picks, Jeremy Hill, is now on I.R. and leaves a bit of a void at running back. That means we’ll be seeing a lot of Joe Mixon, another of a trio of second round backs from the past five years.
Because of the free agency losses of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, Mixon hasn’t found much space to navigate the ground game. He’s shown flashes as to why he was largely-viewed as the best all-around back in this year’s draft class, but he still hasn’t had that “wow” game.
This provides a major problem for the Bengals’ woeful offense, as Denver is No. 5 against the run and No. 8 against the pass. Things will need to drastically change from what we’ve seen in the previous 26 games if Cincinnati wants to grab their fourth win of the season.
Additionally, the offense is so bad at hanging on to the ball, that the defense is forced back on the field in short time, while unable to make proper adjustments. In fact, last week, the Bengals had the ball for a paltry 19:51 to Tennessee’s 40:09.
That’s been the unfortunate norm for the Bengals this year and it’s a large reason why they’ve lost 15 of their last 26 contests.
Last year, these two teams faced off and led to disappointing results for the Bengals. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas combined for 15 catches, 217 yards and three touchdowns—and that was at Paul Brown Stadium.
Adam Jones is dealing with a concussion so one of those first round defensive picks in the form of Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson will need to step up against a potentially-explosive Broncos passing attack. Unfortunately, at 3-6, one eye is on creating a strong finish to the season, while the other is on what lies ahead next season.
Lewis has brought respectability and competitiveness back to the Bengals since his 2003 hiring. However, one of the knocks on his tenure is in his inability to beat teams who are seen as premiere franchises.
Though they don’t immediately spring to mind, Denver is one of the better and most successful NFL franchises. Lewis hasn’t fared well against them over the previous 14 years, going just 2-7 in head-to-head clashes.
Ironically, Lewis has bucked another negative trend as the team’s head coach, in that those two wins both came on Monday Night Football. This one isn’t in primetime, but will have quite a broad audience as a late afternoon game.
Many could say that since their Wild Card loss to the Steelers back in January 2016, the Bengals have not played up to the talent of their roster. Is that an issue of coaching, or is it simple overestimating the talent they’ve amassed? It might be both, but that’s another conversation for another time.
Even so, it’s a pertinent point to Sunday’s game. One is inclined to believe that Cincinnati should be able to frustrate the limited Osweiler, but who knows with this team? They made Blake Bortles look good.
The Bengals are on their third straight road trip and might have given up on their coach. If they win, they will have proved many people wrong in this regard, but signs point to 3-7 and a reassessment of all of their practices this offseason.
Broncos 26, Bengals 17
AC — Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. While we’re talking about fires, how about a sale?