Football fans everywhere have been rewarded with a belated holiday gift for the penultimate primetime game of the season: a pivotal matchup between two of the league's elite clubs, ripe with significant postseason implications. A first-round bye and the No. 2 seed in the AFC are on the line when the Denver Broncos (10-4) host the Cincinnati Bengals (11-3) on Monday Night Football.
The Bengals have already clinched a franchise-record fifth straight postseason berth, but obviously still have a lot more to play for. With a win over the Broncos, Cincy would earn that coveted week of rest, and most importantly, buy some more time for injured quarterback Andy Dalton to heal his fractured thumb and return for a playoff run.
That advantage is particularly crucial for a team that hasn't seen postseason success in nearly 25 years. With four straight one-and-done exits in the playoffs, the big question looming above the Bengals is a familiar one: can they win a playoff game? That hasn't happened since January 1991, and given the extraordinary success of this year's team so far, it appears that nothing short of ending that drought would be acceptable in Cincinnati this season.
While the Bengals have already locked up a spot in the playoffs, nothing is guaranteed yet for a reeling Broncos team. With four losses in their last seven games after a 7-0 start, Denver is in danger of losing the AFC West and (gasp!) potentially missing out on the playoffs entirely. They can eliminate the latter disaster scenario by winning Monday night, which would clinch their fifth straight postseason berth and put them in position for the No. 2 seed.
The biggest concern for Denver coming out of last Sunday's loss to the Steelers is the collapse of its formerly top-ranked defense. Entering Week 15, the Broncos were the only team that hadn't given up 30 or more points in a game, and were the only club that had yet to allow an individual 300-yard passer this season.
Both of those streaks ended in Pittsburgh, as Ben Roethlisberger shredded them for 380 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 34-27 Steelers win. While Cincinnati's offense is not as explosive as Pittsburgh's, the Broncos can't afford another defensive meltdown if they are going to have any chance of regaining some traction in the playoff race.
The Broncos' sudden defensive issues aren't the only concern in Denver this week. More troubling are their acute second-half offensive struggles. They have outscored opponents by 40 points in the first half of their past three games, but have been shut out, 36-0, after halftime in those games. That's zero points in 22 drives, excluding a kneel-down in San Diego. The Broncos are the first team since the 2011 Jaguars to go scoreless in three straight second halves.
The Broncos' inability to move the chains has really hurt them as their offense has stagnated in the third and fourth quarters. They are averaging 4.5 plays per drive and have converted only 4-of-28 third and fourth down chances (14.3 percent) in the second half of their last three games. Both the run game and the passing attack have been woefully inefficient: they're averaging just 2.5 yards per rush and 4.5 yards per pass attempt after halftime during this stretch.
AJ McCarron was efficient -- though hardly spectacular -- in his first NFL start last Sunday, completing 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. That was enough to beat the lowly 49ers, mostly thanks to a strong defensive effort that produced four turnovers and shut out the 49ers for the first 40-plus minutes of the game. The Bengals now rank first in scoring defense in the NFL, allowing just 17.4 points per game.
If the Bengals are going to beat the Broncos, however, McCarron has to be more than a game manager. He showed glimpses of that last week with two deep passes to A.J. Green (37 yards) and Marvin Jones (47 yards), and also used play-action effectively to create easy completions. One area he needs to improve is his pocket awareness, after taking four sacks against San Francisco. That could problematic against a Denver defense that entered Week 16 with the league's highest sack rate (9.3 percent).
Who to Watch
With both teams starting backup quarterbacks and coming off poor performances on the ground, the winner of this game could be whichever club is able to re-establish its sluggish rushing attack.
Last week against San Francisco, the Bengals gained 68 yards on 36 carries, an average of 1.9 yards per rush. The Broncos backfield wasn't much better against Pittsburgh: Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined for 62 yards on 18 carries (3.4 yards per rush).
On defense, both teams have found success in shutting down the run game this season. Heading into the weekend, the Broncos were giving up a league-low 3.2 yards per rush and 79.9 rushing yards per game.
The Bengals are ranked 23rd in yards per rush allowed (4.3), but have really improved in the second half of the season. Five of their first seven opponents topped 100 yards, while averaging 5.0 yards per carry; since then, no team has rushed for more than 95 yards against Cincy, which is allowing just 3.6 yards per rush over its last seven games.
How to Watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
The Broncos are 3.5-point favorites and the over/under is 40.5, according to OddsShark.com.
The experts are favoring Denver in this matchup of AFC powerhouse teams. At ESPN, only two members of the 13-man panel are taking the Bengals. Over at CBS Sports, five of the eight panelists are picking the Broncos to win. Here at SB Nation, our crew is really confident in the home team with seven of eight guys taking the Fighting Osweilers.
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