NFL Preview - Denver (11-3) at Cincinnati (9-4-1) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - If Jim Ross was getting ready to broadcast the Cincinnati Bengals' next game, the famed wrestling announcer might say: "Business is about to pick up."
When the Bengals welcome Denver to Paul Brown Stadium for "Monday Night Football," it's with the stark realization that Johnny Manziel will be turning into Peyton Manning over a one-week span. That's the equivalent of a basic arithmetic test followed up by one on advanced calculus.
"It's going to be a big shift, safe to say," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis admitted. "It's a challenge. (Manning) gets everyone's attention in this building right away. The player he is, how he carries himself, how he runs things on the field -- it's going to be a great challenge for us."
Challenge may be an under statement because the Bengals have never beaten Manning whether he was in Indianapolis or Denver, compiling an 0-8 mark when the five-time MVP is lined up opposite them.
Cincinnati inched closer to its fourth consecutive postseason berth in Week 15 when plenty of money signs were flashed but none coming from the player associated with the gesture, Manziel.
The Cleveland rookie quarterback's first career NFL start was as dismal as it gets and the Browns were whitewashed, 30-0, by the AFC North-leading Bengals.
Jeremy Hill had 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries and Giovani Bernard amassed 79 yards on the ground for the Bengals (9-4-1), who produced points on each of their first four drives and remain a half-game ahead of Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the division standings entering Week 16.
Cincinnati can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Broncos and it can earn the AFC North crown with a win coupled with losses by the Steelers, who play Kansas City on Sunday, and the Ravens, who are at Houston.
"We're still in control of everything," said quarterback Andy Dalton. "We know these next two games are going to be big. The way our division is going, everyone keeps winning. We know what we're facing."
Dalton completed 14-of-24 passes for 117 yards with one interception against the Browns as Cincinnati won its fourth straight road game to tie a club record.
Denver, meanwhile, already punched its ticket to the postseason dance by winning the AFC West for a fourth straight year after downing San Diego, 22-10, in Week 15.
Now the Broncos are focused on a first-round bye and the top spot in the AFC. Denver will clinch the mini-vacation with a win over the Bengals but needs to win out and hope New England loses one of its final two games to claim the top spot in the conference.
Hindered by a bout with the flu and temporarily sidelined by a thigh injury, Manning got plenty of support from his Broncos teammates against the Chargers.
Manning briefly exited the game late in the first half and produced a modest 233 yards with a touchdown, but five Connor Barth field goals and a strong defensive effort helped Denver sew up another division crown.
"It's a tough division to win, so it feels good," said Manning. "All it does is guarantee you a spot in the playoffs, but at least you have a shot."
The Broncos limited San Diego to 288 total yards, with the Chargers failing to mount a sustained rushing attack with top back Ryan Mathews out with an ankle injury.
Demaryius Thomas caught six passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, while C.J. Anderson added 85 rushing yards on a workmanlike 29 carries.
"All that really matters now is winning," said Thomas.
Manning completed 14-of-20 attempts one week after he threw for a season-low 173 yards and had a streak of 51 consecutive games with a touchdown pass halted against Buffalo. The Broncos won that game, too, though.
Manning was shaken up while blocking Chargers linebacker Donald Butler on Anderson's third-and-goal run that was initially ruled a touchdown, then overturned on review. When the five-time league MVP hobbled, Broncos head coach John Fox opted for Barth's 19-yard field goal.
Brock Osweiler directed Denver's next series, which ended in a quick three- and-out, as Manning received treatment in the locker room.
The Broncos lead their all-time series with the Bengals by a significant 19-8 margin and have won four straight, the last of which was a 31-23 triumph in November of 2012 when Manning threw for 291 yards and three TDs.
Both teams have had their troubles on Monday nights with Denver compiling a 29-36-1 mark over the years and Cincinnati being even worse at 10-20.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Manning and the Broncos offense have taken a step back from their 2013 performance, perhaps the best statistical season in NFL history, when Denver became the first team to pass the 600-point barrier.
That said, when you look up, the numbers remain staggering as Manning is third in the AFC with 4,143 passing yards and even better with 37 TD passes (second in the NFL) and a 106.4 passer rating (tops in the conference). The veteran now has an NFL record 14 career 4,000-yard passing seasons and headlines an offense that is fifth in the NFL in both yards (400.7 yards per game) and points per game (29.1).
If anything the group has become more well-rounded in recent weeks because of the emergence of the ground game and Anderson, who is averaging 135.3 scrimmage yards per game (812 total) with six total TDs (four rushing, two receiving) over the past six games.
The receiving threats remain as good as any in football led by Thomas, who has 1,389 receiving yards and leads all AFC receivers with 41 TD catches since entering the league in 2010. His running mate, Emmanuel Sanders, has a career- high 1,261 yards and seven TD catches over his past nine games.
The Cincinnati defense looked like world-beaters against Manziel but has taken a significant step back overall without Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota.
The Bengals D entered last week's contest 25th in the league and are now 20th after dominating Manziel. The 25 number is probably more indicative of where they belong because facing a QB who isn't ready to play in the NFL is an anomaly and certainly not what Cincy will be up against on Monday night.
Dalton has been inconsistent this season so the strength of the Bengals offense is the running game, which is clicking now that Bernard is healthy and the rookie Hill is getting more comfortable week by week. The Cincinnati running game has been averaging 145.3 yards per game over its past four games.
That shapes up as strength versus strength, though, because the Denver defense is second in the NFL. allowing only 71.6 yards per game on the ground. Overall, Jack Del Rio's stop unit is one of the most improved in the league and is fourth overall, surrendering 309.4 yards per game.
The two stars of the unit, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, come off the edge and the Broncos are one of only two teams with two players that have recorded 10 or more sacks (Miller 13, Ware 10).
"We have to get through this game before we have any opportunities at January," Lewis said. "It's been (a playoff mentality) for the last seven weeks. Preparation and how you go about it, and the confidence of knowing what to do and how to do it allows you to play fast. That's the most important thing, for us: to play fast, to play physical, to play smart."
The Bengals are 13-2-1 in their past 16 regular-season home games but one of those losses and the tie came in their past two as the host. With the air of invincibility at Paul Brown Stadium diminishing and Manning's history of success against Cincinnati, it's tough to pick the Bengals here.
"It's our goal (to win the Super Bowl) every year," Fox said. "Everybody's hope and dream before the season is you'll be hoisting that championship trophy. We got close last year and came up short. Obviously, (the AFC West championship) is a great accomplishment, but we still have more season left."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 27, Bengals 21