There will also be two different approaches on display, each team once again putting itself in this position in its own way.
“I think when guys sign here they know John Elway is going to do what the team has to do to be successful," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “When I was trying to decide what to do (in free agency), you saw Peyton Manning, you saw playoffs, you saw them doing things to compete."
That’s not to say the Bengals haven’t had success. At 11-3 and having already clinched a playoff spot this season, they’ve now been to the playoffs in six of the past seven years.
And they’ve done it all with Marvin Lewis as the team’s coach -- in the job since 2003, he’s the second-longest-tenured head coach in his current job, behind only New England’s Bill Belichick. Lewis has now won 110 regular-season games with the Bengals, becoming the franchise’s all-time leader.
But Lewis is 0-6 in playoff games, all losses in the wild-card round. That includes losses to the Houston Texans, coached by current Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, to finish off the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Lewis holds the NFL record for wins with one team without a playoff victory.
Still, Bengals owner Mike Brown has consistently stood behind Lewis and even signed Lewis to another contract extension earlier this year, through the 2016 season -- the eighth contract extension Lewis has signed with the team during his tenure.
Over that time the Broncos have had four different head coaches as well as an interim head coach, having fired Mike Shanahan following the 2008 season after 14 seasons as the team’s head coach. When Josh McDaniels was fired with four games remaining in the 2010 season, current running backs coach Eric Studesville served as the head coach for the remainder of that season.
Then John Fox was hired. He went 46-18 in his four regular seasons, but Fox and the Broncos parted ways after the 2014 season because of playoff disappointments. They lost in their first playoff game to close out the 2012 and 2014 seasons to go with a 35-point loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl to close out the 2013 season.
The day last January when the Broncos announced Fox would not be back, Elway offered his famous “kicking and screaming" quote about what he wanted from the team. He used that phrase again when he hired Kubiak as head coach.
“We were going to do everything we can to try to win a world championship, and we continue to do that, year in and year out," Elway said, explaining his approach. “When I look at my job and where the bulk of my job falls ... is when we step on the field for the first day in training camp that we can say we’re a better football team than we were at the end of the year before."
With 10 wins this season the Broncos have now won at least 10 games in each of the past four seasons -- the Bengals have also had at least 10 wins in each of the past four seasons -- but the Broncos’ playoff fate is still in doubt. With the 9-5 Kansas City Chiefs just behind them in the AFC West race, the Broncos likely need to win both of their remaining games to guarantee themselves a postseason slot.
“That group in there right now knows when they’re playing well, they know what they’re capable of doing," Kubiak said. “All those other things will take care of themselves if you’re playing well. Talking through those things -- I don’t know what that does for you. You’ve got to play through those situations, so we need to play a little better right now."