Bengals, Broncos square off with plenty of playoff implications

The Cincinnati Bengals are already in, the Denver Broncos would like to be in -- the playoffs, that is -- and Monday night’s game in Denver will have a lot to say about which team earns a much-coveted playoff bye.

The Bengals (11-3) have clinched their postseason spot and are currently the AFC’s No. 2 seed, behind the New England Patriots. The Broncos once had a three-game lead in the AFC West, a lead that’s now just one game after back-to-back losses.

The Broncos need two wins -- Monday night against the Bengals and in the regular-season finale against the Chargers -- to guarantee their best-possible playoff positioning, which would include a bye week for a battered team that desperately needs one.

ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Monday’s game:

Jeff Legwold: Coley, the Broncos had to do a slight makeover on offense when backup quarterback Brock Osweiler replaced Peyton Manning. Have the Bengals had to adjust in Andy Dalton’s absence, and do they think they Dalton will be back in the postseason?

Coley Harvey: I’ll start with the second part of that question. Publicly the Bengals have been tight-lipped about when Dalton might return from the right thumb injury he sustained against the Steelers two weeks ago. Part of that is because they honestly don’t know how well the bone is healing, although he is having twice-a-day treatments that include “bone-growth stimulation.” They’ll have a better idea when the Bengals return from Denver, when Dalton goes through another evaluation. There certainly is hope around the team that he could be back by the divisional round of the playoffs. That’s a big reason why Monday night’s game, and the possibility of securing the No. 2 seed, is important. As for the adjustments, the only real change we saw in last week’s game at San Francisco was a greater emphasis on running the football. The Bengals ran 36 times, but for only 68 yards. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has mentioned that, with the arrival of colder weather, he wants to keep the ball on the ground anyway. Aside from that, AJ McCarron still threw the ball downfield regularly, and still went through some of the same unique formations and pre-snap adjustments that are hallmarks of Jackson’s scheme.

Jackson was quite complimentary early in the week when discussing the Broncos’ newly aggressive defense. What’s been the big difference this season for them on D, Jeff?

Legwold: It is a rather unique situation. The Broncos have largely the same personnel they had last season, when they were No. 3 in total defense, tied for 16th in scoring defense and tied for ninth in sacks with Jack Del Rio as their defensive coordinator. This season under Wade Phillips the defense has been the league-leader in the major defensive categories for much of the season. The players say it's simply because Phillips has turned them loose a bit with a risk-reward style they like. Phillips doesn’t blitz very much -- what he does is, in the team’s four-man rush packages, varies the four players going after the quarterback. He’ll routinely add linebackers and defensive backs to the rush and drop linemen or linebackers out into the passing lanes. They’ve sent more than four rushers at opposing quarterbacks on more than 20 snaps in just three games this season, but it looks like more because they come from all angles. They have three cornerbacks they’re confident about putting in man coverage on any receiver -- Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby. They have speed at linebacker and get a consistent push up front. Von Miller disrupts things, and they have unheralded yet quality players like Brandon Marshall, Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson who help make it all work.

When you look at this game overall and what it potentially means in the playoff picture, do the Bengals feel any added pressure given their postseason struggles? And are the players sick of hearing about it?

Harvey: Everyone in Cincinnati -- from the players to the coaches to season-ticket holders to the mayor -- is tired of talking about the Bengals’ lack of postseason success since 1990. As you well know, Jeff, it has been since the glorious days of Hammer pants and hairspray that the Bengals have won a playoff game. Under head coach Marvin Lewis they are 0-6, having dropped first-round games in 2005, 2009 and each of the past four years. If the players are feeling added pressure, then that’s a problem. The best thing they can do is to just pretend the past never happened. In all honesty, that seems to be the way they are approaching it. All season we’ve heard players say they feel 2015 is different. A franchise-best 8-0 start probably led many of them to believe this season would be special.

Much of the talk in Cincinnati for the past couple of weeks has revolved around trying to obtain the AFC’s No. 2 seed. What are folks in Denver saying about the playoff implications of this game?

Legwold: In some ways this Broncos team had teased its fans unlike any other in recent years. The defense has been No. 1 in most major categories for much of the season. But the offense, even with Manning at quarterback before his foot injury, has been an enormous question mark all season. Sometimes it’s functional, even dominant for moments, while at other times it looks like a disjointed mix of game plans and personnel that can’t get the ball past the 50-yard line. The fans here, who always expect the playoffs -- Denver parted ways with a coach, John Fox, who was 46-18 in the regular season and won four division titles in four years -- see that the team’s defense could carry it deep into the postseason. They're excited, but with a hefty side of dread because the offense has not been consistent enough.

In the end, there’s a lot on the line Monday night. If you had to pick a below-the-radar player who could be an X factor, who would it be?

Harvey: Does McCarron count as “below the radar” -- if so, I'll say him, purely because of his talented supporting cast. If you don’t want to count McCarron, I’ll pick safety Reggie Nelson. It was then-backup cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick who was the hero in last season’s Week 16 meeting in the Queen City. This time around don’t be surprised if Nelson, the NFL’s current interceptions leader, comes away with a clutch turnover Monday.

Jeff, what's the biggest difference between the Week 12 Osweiler-led Broncos team that beat the Patriots and the Week 15 group that couldn’t score in the second half in a loss to the Steelers?

Legwold: If you can figure that out call Gary Kubiak, because he’d like to know too. The Broncos haven’t scored in the second half in their past three games. They still won in San Diego, but watched their 12-0 lead turn into a 15-12 loss to the Raiders and watched a 27-10 lead in the second quarter against the Steelers last Sunday turn into a 34-27 loss. What the Steelers loss showed was even a defense as good as the Broncos’ defense can’t consistently be put in bad field position against a playoff-caliber offense and keep forcing punts. The Broncos' offense didn’t cross the 50-yard line in Pittsburgh until late in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers' high-powered offense eventually feasted on the field position (the Steelers ran 75 plays in the game). The Broncos have struggled on the offensive line all season, with two left tackles on injured reserve and injuries at guard for most of the campaign. There are times they can overcome that, but often the Broncos lose at the line of scrimmage and it bogs the whole offense down. To earn a win Monday, the Broncos will need their stars on offense to all play like stars in the same game.