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Five Keys To Bengals Victory Over Colts: Playoffs Edition

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We take a look at the five biggest keys to a Bengals victory in the Wild Card round of the playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts.

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Here we go. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. How does that go if a fourth time occurs? The Bengals make a short trip one state over to the AFC South Champion Indianapolis Colts today. Andrew Luck has led his team to the playoffs for the third straight season and they are hosting a team that they beat by 27 points just a couple of months ago.

The Bengals have been the NFL's version of Jekyll and Hyde in 2014. Ten and a half wins is admirable, especially with the amount of big injuries to keys players during the year, but there are some major pockmarks on the annual review. Sure, they grabbed three wins and a tie versus some of the playoff teams, but also had four of their five crushing losses against other postseason-bound clubs--the Colts included.

Which Bengals team will show up on Sunday? With A.J. Green reportedly out on Sunday, will Cincinnati be able to recover well enough to snag a win? If they want to get their first playoff win in 24 years, the following points are some of the keys in which the Bengals will need to excel to break that dubious streak.

Defend Indy's Twin Tower Tight Ends:

It must be a broken record at this point. The Bengals have historically struggled covering tight ends, but it has improved in recent years. Back in October, part of the embarrassment at Lucas Oil Stadium centered around the Colts' two talented guys at the position. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen combined for seven catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Yikes.

This performance followed another torching by tight ends in New England, so this will have to be a point of defensive emphasis this weekend. In the first match-up, the Bengals only had Vincent Rey as one of their true "starting linebackers" and he was in the lineup because Vontaze Burfict was out. The rangy Emmanuel Lamur looks to be back and the physicality of Rey Maualuga will be in the middle. A combination of linebackers, safeties and even corners will need to be used against these two.

Continue Using The Two Bengals Running Backs:

Since the mindset of Hue Jackson changed to focus more on Jeremy Hill, both backs have found a great niche in the offense. Hill has had five 100-yard rushing games in the past nine weeks (four over 140 yards) and Giovani Bernard has been making plays as a receiver and spelling Hill on certain drives. It's working well, as the Bengals are 6-3 since.

With A.J. Green being out of the lineup with a concussion, relying on Hill churning out tough yardage on the ground and Bernard shimmying his way for solid yardage in the passing game will be huge. The Colts defense finished a pedestrian 18th against the run in 2014, and in case you're wondering, Hill only had four carries back in the first go round. In fact, the Bengals only had 12 designed runs in the Week 7 match-up--that won't do this Sunday.

Tune Out The Noise:

Indianapolis has a notorious reputation for having a loud stadium. Now, it's not to the level of the Pacific Northwest and their "12th Man". But dating back to the Peyton Manning days, Indy has always had a raucous atmosphere for visitors. Sometimes that noise is even rumored to be manufactured, with crowd noise added into the sound system at the stadium.

Crowd noise is one of those intangible things, where attributing it to wins could be seen as arbitrary. The Colts are 6-2 at Lucas Oil Stadium this year (one win being against the Bengals), while the aforementioned Seahawks are 7-1 at home. Home field advantage is huge, hence why so many teams who have clinched playoff berths still vie for it, and the crowd noise is a part of that. With the Bengals' offense sometimes having communication issues that cause early timeouts, tuning out the noise will be key for Andy Dalton and Co.

All Things Andrew Luck:

Facet One, Turnovers: Though Luck is at the top of most positive statistical passing categories, he also ranked No. 6 in interceptions on the year with 16 (Dalton was tied for third with 17), and lost six more fumbles. Defenses caused 13 of those fumbles, due to poor pass protection and Luck's gutsy penchant for tucking and running with the ball. Cincinnati only recovered one fumble back in October and with so many players out of the lineup on Sunday, they might need to double or triple that amount.

Facet Two, Scrambling Ability: Though he barely cracked his career-low in rushing yards from his rookie season (273), Luck still can move the ball with his legs. He had three rushing touchdowns at 4.3 yards per carry and though that may not sound like much, they might rely on this a bit more if the Bengals sell out on pass defense and don't' respect Trent Richardson and/or Dan Herron. If coverage is tight, Bengals defenders will need to have one eye on Luck in case he tucks and bails.

Facet Two, Down, But Never Out: In 51 career games, Luck has 12 career game-winning drives (including postseason). The most impressive of those 12 has to be last year's Wild Card round comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs, rallying back from a 31-10 halftime deficit to defeat them 45-44. Even looking back to the 2013 match-up between the Bengals and Colts, Luck made it a closer game than it needed to be, thanks to four passing touchdowns. If the Bengals are somehow able to grab a lead, it won't be over until the clock reaches triple zeroes.

Zero, And I Mean, Zero Turnovers:

This is critical for two reasons: the first of which is the lack of offensive weapons available to Dalton on Sunday. The Bengals have wisely recognized the strengths and weaknesses of their quarterback and attempted to surround him with as much possible talent as possible. Unfortunately, three of the top three perceived receiving threats going into 2014 won't be available on Sunday (Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones). Dalton can't force throws, nor can the backs (who will be heavily relied upon) let the ball hit the turf. The Bengals will likely need to get creative to get a win on Sunday, as was discussed on the recent episode of Inside the Jungle, but near perfection in the turnover category will be a must.

Secondly, one has to look at past postseason history and the emotional state of the Bengals in this regard. Early turnovers and/or spotty play, particularly from their quarterback, could sink the Bengals into a "here we go again" mode. Avoiding that, especially against a quarterback like Luck, while on the road, could be a must. With Pro Bowlers and other heavy contributors out of the lineup, Cincinnati will need all of the confidence it can receive.

Bonus: Leon Hall Versus T.Y. Hilton:

We like to stick to five, but being that this is a playoff game, we're going all-out. Most of the other five are team or position oriented, but the bonus is more specific. Hall has had an up-and-down year, with the defense actually scoring pretty decent in many obscure categories (per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com on the aforementioned Inside The Jungle episode), but Hall has been torched by younger, and more athletic wideouts this year--Hilton being one.

Marvin Lewis has a high-level of trust in his veterans--particularly in the secondary--Hall being one of them. Veteran savviness at a critical position in the playoffs builds confidence, but sometimes youth and athleticism win the day. Terence Newman had a rough evening against Emmanuel Sanders and the coaching staff made the right call in switching over to Dre Kirkpatrrick against the Broncos on Monday night. If Hall has a similar afternoon against Hilton, who had over 100 yards receiving in their last match-up, the coaches might want to look at Kirkpatrick or Darqueze Dennard to fill-in.