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Bengals v Colts: What to look for in the passing game

For the Bengals to end their 23 year playoff drought, Andy Dalton needs to protect the ball and the Bengals defense needs to force Luck to hand the ball to them. These two things may be easier said than done.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

When the Colts Throw the Ball:

Colts Pass Offense: 305.9 YPG (1st); 7.7 YPA (t-6th); 42 TDs (1st); 16 INTs (26th); 29 Sacks (8th); 96.8 Passer Rating (7th); 62.0% CMP (t-19th)
Bengals Pass Defense: 243.0 YPG (20th); 6.6 YPA (6th); 18 TDs (t-3rd); 20 INTs (t-3rd); 20 Sacks (32nd); 75.8 Passer Rating (3rd); 60.0% CMP (9th)

Andrew Luck leads the NFL with 40 passing touchdowns in 2014 and oversaw the No. 1 ranked passing attack, amassing 4,894 yards on the season. 344 yards, 8.2 YPA, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a 105.7 passer rating. Those were Luck's numbers when these two teams hooked up in Week 7. Luck is one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL and has the ability (and the receiving corps) to take over any game and bring his team back from any deficit (see 2013 wildcard comeback against the Chiefs). However, Luck has struggled down the stretch. After throwing for 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in his first 9 games, Luck has thrown 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in his last 7 games (and 5 of those touchdowns came against Washington). In fact, over the Colts' last three games, Luck has averaged just 152.0 YPG and has 4 touchdowns to 3 interceptions.

It is also worth noting that despite not getting the public criticism that Dalton receives, Luck's playoff numbers aren't much better than Dalton's. In three playoff games, Luck has exactly one more win than Dalton, and that win, was the result of an epic comeback - which Luck was a huge part of, but was spurred by huge injuries incurred in the game by the Chiefs. Along with his 1-2 record, Luck's playoff numbers include 55.0 completion percentage, 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 1 fumble and a passer rating of 70.0. Take away the insane final 24 minutes last year against the Chiefs, and Luck's touchdown to interception ratio is 3/6 in the other 10.5 quarters.

If the Bengals have any hopes of ending their 23 year playoff drought, they will have to get pressure on Luck, limit the big plays and force the turnover-prone Luck to show up, a tall task for a Bengals' defense that was dead last in the NFL with just 20 sacks.The good news for the Bengals, is that the Colts will be missing three offensive linemen - including their starting right tackle. Combined with missing their best pass blocking back, Ahmad Bradshaw, even the Bengals may be able to get to Luck. If the Bengals can get to Luck, he will turn the ball over. Only five quarterbacks threw more interceptions in 2014 than Luck (16) and according to Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue, fumbles (12) are actually the bigger issue with Luck, as he has a tendency to "extend the play when he should just take the sack."

While the Bengals secondary has been their strength all year long, they will have their work cut out with Luck and the No. 1  passing attack, regardless of his turnover numbers. The key for the Bengals will be shutting down the run and making the Colts one dimensional, thereby helping their league-worst pass rush and making Luck force the ball downfield. If the Colts can get the run game going and give Luck time, he will pick them apart again just like he did in Week 7. However, if the Bengals can play defense the way they have the last three weeks of the season, including solid games against Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, they have a good chance in Indianapolis.

That being said, until I see the Bengals shut down Luck, I have to give the nod to the guy with 40 touchdowns.

Advantage: Colts

When the Bengals Throw the Ball:

Bengals Pass Offense: 213.8 YPG (21st); 7.0 YPA (t-19th); 20 TDs (t-22nd); 17 INTs (t-24th); 23 Sacks (3rd); 84.0 Passer Rating (24th): 64.1% CMP (13th)
Colts Pass Defense: 229.3 YPG (12th); 7.2 YPA (t-15th); 27 TDs (t-20th); 12 INTs (t-21st); 41 Sacks (t-9th); 88.7 Passer Rating (14th); 58.9 % CMP (6th)

We all know the numbers... and they are terrible: 0-3, outscored 33-77, 1 touchdown, 6 interceptions, 1 lost fumble and a 56.2 passer rating. Certainly, Dalton has not played well and he has to play better if the Bengals want to secure their first win in the playoffs since 1991 this weekend.

The good news for the Bengals? Thanks to Hue Jackson, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the game shouldn't need to be placed on Dalton's shoulders, as it has the past three postseasons. The bad news for the Bengals? It sounds like A.J. Green (and possibly Jermaine Gresham) will not play. With Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert already out, the Colts will be keying on the run game and this could mean big trouble if the Bengals find themselves down big against an offense that can put up numbers. The Bengals would be wise to get Bernard involved early and often in the passing game, where he will have a huge advantage against the Colts' linebackers.

The Colts have a good secondary, and while Dalton's numbers were terrible in their Week 7 matchup, (18/36, 126 yards, 0 touchdowns, 7.9 QBR and 55.4 passer rating) Dalton did not have a turnover and his numbers were largely a result of a poor game plan, drops, no running game and a porous offensive line (3 sacks, 9 QB hits). The game plan and drops are still up in the air, but the offensive line has been playing well and the running game is clicking.

With the injuries the Bengals have in their receiving corps, I give the Colts the nod, but keep in mind, without Green this year, Dalton is 2-1-1 with 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and 2 rushing touchdowns.

Advantage: Colts