It's been a strange and frustrating year for Peyton Manning, one of the faces on the NFL's Mount Rushmore. A little over a year ago to the day, pundits began to question the Hall of Fame quarterback's viability as a starter because of a physical decline.
What has transpired since is further questions and more injuries, as well as an odd report slinging arrows on one of the league's most impeccable reputations. Manning, who had previously owned the Bengals in their matches, lost at Paul Brown Stadium last December, helping to punch Cincinnati's ticket to the postseason. As the teams face off in Denver this Monday night, it won't be Manning under center, but rather Brock Osweiler, who is making his sixth NFL start.
Osweiler's odd career path began with taking a backseat to Manning for three-plus seasons and then getting thrown into the limelight because of No. 18's injuries. In a microcosm of Manning's past calendar year, Osweiler was the toast of Broncos town for a month, but two straight losses has the Mile High City longing for the Manning they had from 2012 through most of 2014.
The numbers aren't awful for the towering fourth-year signal-caller: a 3-2 record, eight touchdowns against four interceptions, a 60.3 completion percentage and an 84.9 rating, but fans are wanting more. It's the efficiency of drives and spurts of inconsistency that has pundits wondering if Osweiler is the long-term answer to the question of what's next after Peyton Manning.
One thing that has been a blessing with Osweiler under center is the different looks Denver is giving on offense. Osweiler has been directly under center on about 30 percent more snaps than Manning, allowing the unit to run the ball and utilize play-action. It has largely worked, despite some inconsistencies from Osweiler and egregious drops by some of the star receiving options.
Keeping the ship afloat even in the wake of two straight losses is the Broncos' defense, hitting the trifecta in No. 1 rankings (total yards allowed per game, passing yards per game, rush yards per game). Though they didn't have a good game against the Steelers last week, their cornerbacks are two of the best in the league. Chris Harris, Jr. and Aqib Talib will have their hands full with Bengals wideouts A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, in matchups that may be the biggest in the telling of the tape. Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward might also make an appearance, after missing the past three games with an ankle issue.
Von Miller is the star edge player and has given the Bengals fits in his two games against them, as evidenced by his four sacks. He has 10 in 2015, but it's the cast of "the every men" behind him that gives this top Denver defense credence. Non-household names like Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall (no, not that one), and Derek Wolfe all make plays around and behind the line of scrimmage.
Is it the offense or the defense that will drive the outcome for the Bengals? If you're asking a couple of us on the Inside the Jungle podcast, it's the defense. After all, it was that unit who gathered three sacks and four turnovers last week to aid AJ McCarron in his first pro start. Might the Bengals need another stellar performance like we saw against the 49ers and/or the one last year against these same Broncos? It's a strong possibility, and if you're asking Denver which unit they're watching closely, have a look at their recent workout of defensive tackle Devon Still, as well as their bringing in of former Bengals' defensive backs Shaun Prater and Shiloh Keo in the past couple of weeks.
One thing is certain about Cincinnati's offense, consistency is totally lacking. Part of it has to do with the absence of Andy Dalton while McCarron continues to find out what it means to be an NFL starting quarterback, but the running game has been called into question once again. A pitiful performance by the offensive line and the two star-crossed running backs against a No. 31-ranked San Francisco rushing defense last week has raised eyebrows.
Giovani Bernard is hovering around the five yards per carry mark, but a lack of the lion's share of carries and his own spurts of inconsistency are frustrating. Jeremy Hill looks like a completely different football player in his second year, almost running like a player deathly afraid to make a mistake--be it a fumble or hitting the wrong hole. His impeccable rookie instincts seem to have almost wholly vanished, but he'll need to find them as the Bengals' offense with a backup quarterback head to the postseason. While he had a number of great games late last year, one could deem the win with Hill's 85-yard touchdown run as his coming out party.
There are a number of solid player matchups and many NFL stars will be out to shine on the Monday Night Football stage, but there is the dreaded intangible that Bengals fans know oh-so-well. The dreaded 800-pound gorilla in the room is Marvin Lewis-coached teams on the primetime stage. Some believe "the curse", while other fans believe it to be simple hocus-pocus and a coincidence, but whichever side of the fence you're on, the record can't be denied.
Making it incredibly embarrassing is the fashion in which the Bengals lose on the biggest of stages. One only has to look back to six weeks ago when Cincinnati laid another egg at home on Monday night against the Houston Texans. A 10-6 loss didn't really scream undefeated dominance, and it began a 3-3 slide after an 8-0 start, including another primetime loss against the Arizona Cardinals.
Last year, many proclaimed that the Bengals slayed the primetime demon with their exciting win against the Broncos. In their fourth game on the big stage this year, Cincinnati has a chance to get to .500 in the venue which would include a nice win against a likely playoff-bound Broncos team. A loss gives Denver a ticket to the postseason and Cincinnati's only primetime win on the 2015 resume would be against the lowly Cleveland Browns.
Whether you're a believer in the primetime curse or not, these are the type of games the Bengals need to start winning. Big stage, good team, road game--all facets of a contest indicative of the playoffs, which is another area the Lewis-led Bengals have had major struggles.
It's going to come down to which defense can force more mistakes out of the respective backup quarterbacks, as well as which team will revel on the big stage. Unfortunately, the respective histories of these franchises might rule the evening.
Bengals 20, Broncos 30
AC -- Show me the bright lights.