The final Monday Night Football game of the season features a matchup of AFC division leaders that has huge postseason implications for both teams. The Denver Broncos are playoff-bound but are still jockeying for one of the conference's top two seeds, while the Cincinnati Bengals are trying to punch their ticket to the postseason party.
The Broncos clinched their fourth straight division title with a win over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, and can lock up a first-round bye with a victory in Cincinnati. If they lose, the Broncos will have another chance to secure a top-two seed next Sunday when they host the Oakland Raiders.
The Bengals have a tough remaining schedule, but are still in control of their destiny with two weeks to go. The Bengals can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Broncos, and their season finale in Pittsburgh could decide what has been a remarkably tight division all year. Entering Week 16, Football Outsiders had them with 78.2 percent odds to make the playoffs and a 26.7 percent chance to win the AFC North.
If the Bengals are going to clinch their franchise-record fourth straight postseason berth, they'll have to beat a foe that has owned them in recent years. The Broncos have won four straight and 13 of the last 15 meetings with the Bengals, a stretch of dominance that dates back more than 30 years. Peyton Manning is also 8-0 in his career against the Bengals -- his best record versus any team -- with more than 2,000 yards passing and 20 touchdown passes in those eight games.
The Broncos are riding a four-game winning streak, but are doing so in a way that defies conventional wisdom for a team with Peyton Manning under center. The Broncos' offensive identity has shifted in the last month from a pass-heavy attack to a run-first game plan -- they have the most rushing attempts and the second-most rushing yards per game in the NFL over last four weeks. Manning has thrown for fewer than 260 yards in each of his last four games, and he's also attempted no more than 20 passes in back-to-back games (that he has started and finished) for the first time in his career.
If the Bengals are going to upset the Broncos, they need to continue the ground-and-pound approach that has been so successful for them over the past several games. Cincinnati struggled to run the ball in the first half of the season, ranking 16th in rushing yards per game (111.4) and 22nd in yards per rush (3.96) through Week 8. Since then the team is averaging the third-most yards on the ground (149.1) and is sixth in yards per carry (4.56).
The Bengals' run game will face its biggest test of the season against a Broncos rush defense that is giving up the second-fewest rush yards per game (71.6). Denver's statistical dominance in limiting yards on the ground is not just a product of the team being so far ahead on the scoreboard that opposing offenses often ditch the run in order to pass their way back into games. The Broncos also rank second in the league in rush defense on a per-play basis, allowing just 3.4 yards per rush.
Although the Bengals have been near the top of the league standings in recent years, they still continue to come up small in primetime games. Cincinnati has already been blown out twice under the lights the season, and has lost 13 of its last 15 primetime games dating back to 2007.
NFL Week 16
Who to Watch
C.J. Anderson - The second-year back was buried on the depth chart to start the season, but injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman eventually pushed Anderson into the feature back role over the past month. During the Broncos' current wining streak he has a league-best 119.5 rushing yards and 27 carries per game, though his production has slowed in the last two weeks. He combined for a total of just 143 rushing yards in Weeks 14 and 15, averaging a meager 2.9 yards per rush.
Jeremy Hill - The Bengals' turnaround in their ground game has been keyed by the insertion of Hill into the starting lineup in Week 9. The rookie has rushed for at least 140 yards in three of those seven games as the lead back, averaging 5.4 yards per rush. He has the most rushing yards (682) and rushing first downs (37) in the league in that span, and his five rushing touchdowns are behind only Marshawn Lynch (seven) and Le'Veon Bell (six). The Bengals need to continue to feed the ball to Hill if they are going to knock off the Broncos and secure a playoff berth.
Named after the team's Hall of Fame coach, Paul Brown Stadium has been home to the Bengals since 2000. It was ranked No. 101 in a 2007 Harris Interactive survey of the top 150 of America's favorite buildings and structures, the only pro football stadium to make the list. Nicknamed PBS, the venue seats 65,515 and offers views of downtown Cincinnati and the Ohio River. During the 2014 season, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats played their home games at PBS while Nippert Stadium underwent renovations.
How to Watch
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Announcers: Jon Gruden, Mike Tirico
Nearly all the experts are picking the Broncos to win on the road against the Bengals. PFT Commenter is the only one on SB Nation's panel predicting an upset by Cincinnati. Over at CBS Sports, seven of the eight columnists are taking Denver, and 11 of 13 at ESPN are also going with the Broncos.
For more on the Broncos, head over to Mile High Report.
To keep up on the Bengals, check out Cincy Jungle.