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Broncos at Bengals game preview: Perspectives from a mile high

It’s been a bit of a disappointing season for both Denver and Cincinnati, but both are facing off this Sunday to keep their razor-thin playoff chances alive.

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the post-Sam Wyche era for the Cincinnati Bengals, there simply was not much for the team to be proud of from 1992-2002. Poor performances on the field made the team a laughing stock, while a carousel of coaching failures followed one of the most beloved characters in the team’s history.

In 2003, Marvin Lewis came on board and brought a semblance of respectability back to the team. It hasn’t led to a playoff win, but the past 16 seasons have largely been a stark contrast to “The Lost Decade”.

One of the things that has improbably happened in the Lewis era is a coaching tree having been sprouted from Lewis’ work in The Queen City. Leslie Frazier, Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer and Hue Jackson all received head coaching gigs after serving under Lewis, which was something that could not be said about the reigns of David Shula, Bruce Coslet and/or Dick LeBeau.

The latest in the Lewis tree is Vance Joseph, who is the head coach of the Denver Broncos. It’s getting to the point where a fair amount of squads have some familiarity with Lewis and his tendencies, and Joseph knows quite a bit about Lewis having spent the 2014-2015 seasons under him as a Bengals assistant.

As the ponies get set to arrive at Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday, they do so amid differing opinions about their football team. Rookie running back Phillip Lindsay is exciting, their defense is stout and they’re coming off of a nice win against the Steelers, but just how high is the ceiling for Denver?

Case Keenum has had his moments, but he seems like a stopgap guy under center, while the team traded away one of the best wide receivers they have ever employed in Demaryius Thomas (he ranks either second or third in the team’s history in major receiving categories).

At just under .500, a debate seems to be brewing: are the 2018 Broncos overachieving or underachieving?

A similar question is being asked about this year’s Bengals squad. Low expectations were held early in the spring, but pundits began to warm up to the club during the summer. And, after a 4-1 start, it looked like Lewis worked his patented rebuilding magic once again in Cincinnati.

But, a lethal combination of high-impact injuries, a stretch of facing three elite teams in five weeks and an overall malaise on the field have all led to a terrible two-month stretch. The Bengals are 1-5 since Week 5 and even that lone win against the lowly Buccaneers seems hollow.

Yet, though it all, both the Bengals and Broncos have a pulse in the AFC playoff race. While neither team seems to have what it takes to make a deep January run, they could sneak into the bracket if they start rattling off wins.

Aiding the Bengals in a potential salvaging of their season is the return of A.J. Green. The future Hall of Fame receiver has missed the past three games and, not coincidentally, Cincinnati has gone 0-3 with a minus-55 point deficit in those contests.

We’re not quite ready to say that Green being available would make up for that 18.3-point-per-game deficit average, but having him on the field will definitely help towards a possible win. After all, Andy Dalton had thrown just four touchdowns against three interceptions in the contests without No. 18. Compare that to a 17:8 ratio with him in the lineup.

Speaking of Dalton...

The main story with the Bengals this week isn’t about returns that could aid the team in a possible late-season playoff push. It’s in yet another personnel loss.

After a relatively solid campaign, particularly early on, Dalton has been placed on Injured Reserve. In a sequence that was so utterly Bengals-like, their first round pick sailed a snap that Dalton had to chase down and ultimately injured himself on a useless play in a game that was already out of control.


He underwent thumb surgery this week and should be ready to go next offseason, but it leaves a bit of a question mark at the position going forward. In the interim, backup Jeff Driskel gets his first career start after providing a bit of a spark last week in garbage time.

Common knowledge points to Driskel struggling this week, though. He’ll be facing a formidable Broncos defense, spearheaded by the duo of Bradley Chubb and Von Miller who have 20 combined sacks this year, and Denver will have the advantage of seeing more game film on the young signal-caller.

However, Driskel has shined in the preseason before, and that was with a cast comprised of low-end backups and/or guys who didn’t latch on to a roster. He now has Green back, along with the emerging Tyler Boyd and the two-headed rushing attack of Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard.

Might he be able to conjure up some improbable magic? If he does, what does that mean for the club going forward?

One week at a time now, Anthony.

While we’re bringing up Mixon, he continues to be one of the more vocal Bengals players advocating a late-season turnaround. He has been the team’s biggest cheerleader, as his jubilant celebrations from comeback victories in that early 4-1 stretch were prevalent, but are his recent words enough to get his teammates to hop on board?

“You’re going to know who is going to let up and (who will) go play 100 percent,” Mixon said this week, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “You’re going to know who’s shutting it down. At the end of the day, it’s how bad do you want it? Either go out and give it 100 or stay home. Don’t show up.”

You’ve got to love the passion and he speaks the truth, but is it too little, too late? After all, the effort level has seemed to be subpar during the 1-5 free fall—particularly in the games where No. 18 wasn’t out there with his superhero cape waving in the breeze.

Unfortunately, we’ve seemingly reached a point in the season where the question isn’t “who will win?”, but rather “how many points will the Bengals lose by this week?”.

Even though Denver and Cincinnati have both stumbled to a 5-6 record, they are surprisingly alive for the postseason at this point. Each squad will need a near-perfect finish to the year to have a shot, and this week’s victor will have hammered a nail into the opponent’s 2018 coffin.

In yet another must-win scenario for Lewis and the Bengals in a season seemingly full of them, do you trust the veteran coach to get their focus back onto the postseason? Given his track record in big games and his employment of a backup quarterback this week, I wouldn’t bet the house on Lewis coming through.

Broncos 30, Bengals 20

AC — Color me skeptical.