This week’s edition of Monday Night Football sees the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Denver to face the Broncos. Both teams are battling with for the AFC’s last remaining first round bye for the playoffs, so there is a lot at stake. Cincinnati clinched their second AFC North title in three years thanks to Pittsburgh’s surprise loss to Baltimore. But the Bengals still have a first round bye to play for, and a win over Denver would all but guarantee that. With Andy Dalton out, can A.J. McCarron deliver against the league’s top defense? Denver may be in the mix for a first round bye, but their immediate concern is securing the AFC West. Kansas City’s ninth straight win moves them to 10-5, with the Broncos sitting at 10-4 coming into Monday night. Can Brock Osweiler keep the Broncos ahead of the Chiefs?
Three Keys to the Game:
1. A.J. McCarron vs Denver’s defense
With Andy Dalton injured, Cincinnati’s playoff hopes have rested on A.J. McCarron over the past couple of weeks. Against San Francisco last week, McCarron completed 71.4% of his passes for 192 yards and a touchdown without an interception. It will be tough for McCarron to have a standout game against Denver, but the Bengals just need him to be a successful caretaker until the playoffs. Luckily for McCarron, he has a strong supporting cast around him to help him avoid mistakes. Cincinnati has one of the best offensive lines in the league, while targets like A.J. Green and Mohammad Sanu can make the best of McCarron’s limited skills. McCarron won’t have safety blanket and redzone weapon Tyler Eifert to help him though, as Eifert has been ruled out with a concussion. Another cause for concern; over the last two games, McCarron was sacked seven times. With a pass rush as deep and talented as Denver’s, that could be a problem.
2. Cincinnati’s running game
Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard will also be crucial to protecting McCarron. But the duo managed just 64 yards last week against San Francisco. Hill did score two touchdowns, but the Bengals will need a bigger contribution from the ground game if they want to defeat the Broncos. Trouble is, the Broncos are the league’s best defense against the run, allowing just 79.9 yards per game.
3. Can Brock Osweiler beat Cincinnati’s defense?
Brock Osweiler has proven to be an upgrade over Peyton Manning this season, and has allowed Gary Kubiak to run his preferred offense without interference from Manning. But can Denver sustain Osweiler’s success against Cincinnati’s defense? Osweiler has been playing with a shoulder injury, and is probable for the game after participating fully in practice. Denver’s running game struggled against Pittsburgh last week due to injuries, but both Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson will play. Osweiler has a great cast of receivers to throw too, but is hampered by a sub-par offensive line. Osweiler has been sacked seven times over the past two games, and will now face a strong Bengals pass rush with the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. There won’t be any weaknesses in Cincinnati’s secondary either, which is now healthy again and boasts four first round draft picks.
Match-up to watch: A.J. Green vs Aqib Talib
A.J. Green will need to have a good game if McCarron wants to succeed against the Broncos. But without Tyler Eifert drawing coverage, Aqib Talib will be able to focus his attention on Green. Both are tall, physical players, but Talib has more help around him than Green does. Green has just one catch for 37 yards and no touchdowns against San Francisco, and will likely be shut down by Denver as well.
Prediction: Denver Broncos
A.J. McCarron may have played well against San Francisco last week, but this Denver defense is the league’s best. For all his promise, McCarron is still inexperienced, and will make mistakes against Wade Phillips’ unit. Osweiler will face a similarly talented defense, but has a healthier supporting cast around him and should be able to put up more points in what will be a physical, defensive game.