Bengals (7-6) at Broncos (7-6) at Empower Field at Mile High (natural grass), 4:05 p.m. ET, TV: WKRC Ch. 12 (CBS) Radio: WEBN-FM (102.7 FM), 700WLW, ESPN1530
CINCINNATI – Two teams that have mastered the Jekyll and Hyde approach in 2021 meet in a critical game for each as they look to make a run for the playoffs.
The Bengals will be without their starting right tackle, and possibly his backup, and down a starting corner while the Broncos are relatively healthy but haven’t won consecutive games in over month.
Both teams are 7-6 and have had spells where they’ve demonstrated great execution but also a glaring lack of consistency.
Throw in new COVID protocols and uncertainty and you have a game that truly no one knows what to expect going in.
The Bengals have lost two straight since beating the Raiders and Steelers back-to-back coming out of the bye week.
The Bengals will be going up against Denver head coach Vic Fangio’s top-rated red area defense. Under Fangio the last three years, Denver has allowed a touchdown on only 63-of-137 (46.0 percent) opponent red zone trips. This year, they are eighth at 51.7 percent. Conversely, the Bengals are eighth in red zone offense, with 24 touchdowns in 38 trips (63.2 percent).
“They’ve done some really good things and put the offense in a really tough spot,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Friday. “(Some) of the best defenses I ever (coached against) were the 2012 49ers, the 2018 Chicago Bears and you watch this defense on tape, they’re pretty danged good, too. So, it’s really (about) Vic Fangio. He’s just got a lot of experience in the league. He’s really good at what he does.”
"STOKLEY DOWN THE SIDELINE."#TBT to our top ? all-time plays vs. the Bengals: pic.twitter.com/70mqACxX77
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) December 16, 2021
Denver leads the all-time series 22-10 overall and 13-3 as the home team.
Cincinnati won the last meeting at Denver, a 20-17 victory at Mile High in 2017. That win snapped a 10-game Bengals losing streak in Denver, where they had not won since 1975. The Broncos won the last meeting at Paul Brown Stadium, 24-10 in 2018.
Here’s what to look for:
Joe Burrow: Last week we wondered if the quarterback’s dislocated right pinky would hold up. Well, after watching one of the better performances of his young career against the 49ers in a heart-breaking performance, the pinky apparently didn’t trouble him too much. This week (on Wednesday) Burrow said it’s “good enough to play” so we’ll take that as an affirmative that he’s ready to take on a Broncos defense that really has been hit-and-miss this season. Burrow looked very good in practice throwing the ball to Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase and certainly he made enough great throws Sunday against San Francisco to assure everyone that he’s going to be fine.
Burrow to Boyd Thursday at #Bengals practice. pic.twitter.com/ip65tD2JTK
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) December 16, 2021
Joe Mixon: This season the running back has scored 14 touchdowns, which already is tied for the fifth-most ever in a season by a Bengal. With four games remaining, Mixon needs just three TDs to tie WR Carl Pickens’ single-season TD record of 17, set in 1995.
Justin Simmons: The safety topped 400 career tackles in Week 6 against Las Vegas, making him one of two active players with at least 400 total tackles and 20 interceptions since entering the league in 2016. One of the best in the game and like Jessie Bates III, a true leader in the secondary. Bates spoke this week of what a great guy he is on and off the field and that their families know one another.
“He’s a big quarterback for us on defense,” Fangio told me. “He runs our secondary and mixes in with our linebackers to make sure the front and the secondary are on the same page. He’s really good at recognizing plays and reacting. He’s got good football instincts. He’s a good safety and one of the top safeties in the league. He’s a good leader, leads by example. He leads in the meetings, pointing out things to players, all kinds of ways. I’m sure the same way Bates does for the Bengals.”
Stats: The Broncos are second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 17.5 points per game, and 10th in the NFL in both rush and pass defense, allowing just 106.2 yards on the ground and 218.6 through the air.
Running backs Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams: The pair have each rushed for over 700 yards apiece this season, becoming the fourth running back duo in team history to each run for 700 or more yards in a single season. Williams, who ranks third in the NFL among rookies with 743 rushing yards this season, totaled 178 scrimmage yards in his first career start in Week 13 at Kansas City, which is the most by a rookie running back this season.
Teddy Bridgewater: Denver QB needs 56 passing yards to become the 11th different Broncos quarterback to pass for 3,000 or more yards in a single season. Accuracy has been his game, as he needs one game with at least a 70 completion percentage to tie Peyton Manning (7–2010) with seven such games. Bridgewater and Manning are the only quarterbacks in Broncos history to produce a completion percentage of 70 percent or higher in at least six games in a single season.
Courtland Sutton: The wide receiver surpassed 2,500 receiving yards in his 44th career games, becoming the third-fastest Bronco to eclipse the 2,500-yard career receiving mark.
Trey Hendrickson: Edge will be starting after receiving a back scare late in the first half last Sunday that forced him to miss the second half and overtime. He enters the game with an NFL-best 9-game sack streak. It is also the longest in Bengals franchise history.
Evan McPherson reached the 100-point plateau last week with three field goals and two extra-points, giving him 11 on the afternoon. McPherson has converted 37-of-39 extra points and is 21-for-24 on field goals.
Kevin Huber remains middle of the pack in net yards average on his punts at 40.9 yards, ranking 15th in the NFL, and punts inside the 20, with 18, tied for 14th in the league.
Brandon McManus ranks tied for first for the highest field goal percentage in team history and ranks second in total points and field goals made. This year he is 27-of-28 in extra-points and 20-of-23 in field goals. What’s somewhat surprising is that he is just 2-for-4 from 50-plus, while McPherson is 7-for-8 from the same range. McPherson could get his chance to test Mile High kicking this weekend.
Not surprising that Sam Martin benefits from the thin air. His net punting average of 42.3 ranks ninth in the NFL. More impressive is that he has only two touchbacks this season, good for a tie for fifth in the league. Of course, who’s back to field those punts has been an issue all season for the Bengals. Now, with Darius Phillips on IR with a left shoulder injury, the Broncos are preparing for any one of three possibilities. “It’s a big unknown,” admitted Broncos special teams coordinator Tom McMahon. “We don’t know who it’s going to be. [Tyler] Boyd finished the game for them last week. [Trenton] Irwin, two weeks ago, against the Chargers was their returner. They’ve got [Trent] Taylor there who’s been a great returner with the 49ers. We’re preparing for all three of those guys.”
Picking the Bengals in Denver, even when the weather is expected to reach the low 50s, has always been dicey. This is no different. The Denver defense and their running game are legit. The Bengals just haven’t demonstrated enough consistency in losses for there to be enough confidence that they’ll be able to shut down the Broncos when the crowd is at full throat.
Broncos 27, Bengals 25