AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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CINCINNATI -- Four Cincinnati Bengals missed practice Wednesday, being told to stay away because a flu has run amok throughout the team.

The virus has affected different position groups and different corners of the locker room.

Quarterback Andy Dalton was the biggest name player who was sidelined because of it, forced to head home about a half hour before his regularly-scheduled Wednesday news conference. Along with him, tight end Jermaine Gresham, safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Terence Newman had illnesses, too.

It's the second time a contagious bug has hit the team, following the spread of a stomach bug four and five weeks ago. In all, seven Bengals were hit by that one, including Dalton who got it the night before the Bengals' Week 13 game at Tampa Bay. After taking three IVs before the game and throwing up in the locker room during pregame introductions, Dalton threw three first-half interceptions before tossing a touchdown pass and running for another in the second half.

Along with the sick quartet, the Bengals were unsurprisingly without receiver A.J. Green, too. Although he participated in the stretching period, he didn't go through any other part of the practice as he starts trying to recover from a right biceps bruise. Green suffered the injury Monday night when the helmet of a Broncos defensive back barreled hard into him as he leaped for a high pass.

When the ball deflected off Green's hand, it ricocheted into cornerback's Aqib Talib's hands. Untouched, he got off the ground and ran 33 yards for a touchdown on the Bengals' fifth offensive play.

Green told ESPN on Wednesday that he initially thought he had broken his arm on the hit.

During his news conference, coach Marvin Lewis said Green was "progressing." Lewis added that he thought Green had a shot to play Sunday at Pittsburgh in the unofficial AFC North title game. The winner of the matchup will win the division.

Along with the notes on Dalton and Green, the Bengals also are hopeful that receiver James Wright and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur will return this week. Both missed Monday night's game, and Wright missed the two before that. They both practiced Wednesday, going in limited capacity during the Christmas Eve session.

Unlike most teams the Bengals will practice on Christmas Day. Part of the reason they aren't taking the day off is because this keeps them in a daily rhythm ahead of the big Sunday game. It also made sense that they practice after being done no favors by the NFL schedule-makers.

The same week as Christmas, the Bengals had a Monday night game and a Sunday one immediately after it. Normally they'd have six days of practice between games. They would have had only four if they took Thursday off.

Here's the full Wednesday injury report:

DID NOT PRACTICE
QB Andy Dalton (illness)
TE Jermaine Gresham (illness)
CB Terence Newman (illness)
S Reggie Nelson (illness)
LB Chris Carter (knee)
DE Wallace Gilberry (hamstring)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
CB Darqueze Dennard (shin)
LB Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring)
WR James Wright (knee)
CINCINNATI -- Our friends at numberfire.com have been kind enough to once again provide us with the exact odds the Cincinnati Bengals have of winning their division.

According to the sports analytics site, the Bengals have a 39 percent chance of winning Sunday night's game at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A victory over the Steelers in the unofficial AFC North championship game means the Bengals would win the division for a second straight year.

This all means the odds obviously are on the Steelers' side on Sunday. Not only is Pittsburgh hosting this regular-season finale, one of the biggest late-year games the Bengals have played in recent seasons, but the Steelers also won the previous meeting Dec. 28 in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh scored 25 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to roll to a 42-21 victory.

The Steelers opened as three-point favorites for Sunday's game.

The above percentage isn't the only one from the people at NumberFire. The site has crunched the percentages and come up with these other findings:
  • If the Bengals win Sunday and the Broncos lose, the Bengals will be the AFC's No. 2 seed entering the playoffs, giving them a first-round bye. There's a 5.5 percent chance of that happening.
  • It is slightly more likely that the Bengals will be the No. 3 seed if they win Sunday. This scenario also factors in a Broncos victory over the Raiders. There's a 33.5 percent chance of that happening.
  • The most anticipated outcome, though, is that the Bengals lose and the Broncos win. If that happens, the Bengals would be the No. 5 seed and travel to Indianapolis for a wild-card round game. There is a 61 percent chance of that happening.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

A.J. Green, fourth Pro Bowl selection: Injuries have made it a difficult year for Green, who missed parts of five games because of them. For that reason, his selection is a little puzzling. It seems likely that his name alone carried him through this season's picks. He has now been a Pro Bowl selection each year of his career. It's possible a four-game stretch across November and early December may have helped his cause, too. He caught 33 passes for 529 yards in those contests. While he leads the Bengals in receptions (61), receiving yards (959) and receiving touchdowns (six) despite the injuries, he also ranks far down his position's statistical lists. Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown has double the catches Green does, and 23 players have more receiving yards.

Who he beat out: Green beat out Emmanuel Sanders, Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb for the roster spot.

Kevin Huber, first Pro Bowl selection: It made sense that Huber was selected. It would have been a travesty if he hadn't been. That's because all season, he's hovered in the top 5 in gross and net punting averages. If his current averages hold through Sunday's regular-season finale at Pittsburgh, Huber would break single-season franchise records he already holds. He's also the club record-holder in career gross average (44.6) and net average (39.7).

Who he beat out: Huber beat St. Louis' Johnny Hekker, New Orleans' Thomas Morstead and Baltimore's Sam Koch.

SNUBS

Andrew Whitworth, OT. A good case could be made that this was the biggest snub of this year's Pro Bowl voting process. But, as was written last weekend, it was expected. Whitworth has been an almost annual snub. Only once has been voted to the all-star game. Arguably, though, he's played even better since his 2012 selection. This season could go down as the best of his career. Fully healthy all year, Whitworth hasn't allowed quarterback Andy Dalton to be sacked, one of five tackles to have accomplished that feat. He's also only permitted nine quarterback pressures all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Consider this, too: in eight of his 15 games, he has allowed zero pressures. In Week 16 alone, 55 tackles allowed at least one pressure. Whitworth's 98.6 PFF pass-block efficiency rating also is the highest among tackles.

Who he should have beaten: The entire offensive-tackle field. The metrics and PFF grades back it up. There was no better offensive tackle in the league this season than Whitworth.

Kevin Zeitler, OG. Like Whitworth, Zeitler suffered from the media black hole that exists around Cincinnati. Few people outside the city know who they are. Injuries also could have factored in this case, as calf issues kept Zeitler out of four games. Still, he had one of the best seasons of any guard when he played. His 98.4 PFF pass-block efficiency grade ranked fourth among them. It was just 0.4 points behind leader Josh Sitton from Green Bay.

Who he should have beaten: New Orleans' Jahri Evans and San Francisco's Mike Iupati.

Adam Jones, PR. There were a couple potential Bengals special teams snubs, including Dre Kirkpatrick, who might have been a good option for the general specialist position. He had a knack of helping Huber down punts inside the 10 as the team's lead gunner. Jones' snub was more noticeable because of how well he performed as a punt returner all year. At one point, he led the league in punt return average. Among players with 15 or more punt returns at the end of Week 16, he ranks fifth with 11.9 yards per return. Although he doesn't have a punt return touchdown, he did have returns of 45, 21 and 19 yards this season. He also had a streak that spanned nine seasons halted when he fair caught a punt for the first time in 96 tries. It is hard to argue against the selections of Darren Sproles (two punt-return touchdowns) and Devin Hester, though.

Who he should have beaten: Hester.

QB snapshot: Andy Dalton

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
1:00
PM ET
A quick observation of quarterback Andy Dalton and how he played in the Cincinnati Bengals' 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 16:

Dalton
Dalton
 Robert Griffin III who? Russell Wilson who? It might be time to start putting Dalton in the conversation about mobile quarterbacks who can effectively run the read-option.

It was evident late last season that he could pull off the play when the Bengals started showing it more in the last three weeks of the regular season. At various times this year, he also has showcased a knack for picking up big yards on the ground during the rare occasions when offensive coordinator Hue Jackson decided to turn to the option keeper. Monday night was one of those times.

Twice in the second quarter, Dalton kept the ball on read-option plays near the beginning of separate scoring drives. His first keeper came when he rushed 10 yards to the Broncos' 12 to help set up a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham. On Cincinnati's next drive, he went left on an 8-yard keeper that took him out bounds several plays before a Mike Nugent field goal.

It's important Dalton showcase an ability to run as the Bengals try to keep their offense balanced and versatile. By having plays that allow Dalton to pick up chunk yards on the ground, the Bengals' rushing game can remain aggressive. That's particularly important during games when Dalton may struggle to pass deep downfield as he has in the past two. Monday night, he was just 2-for-8 for 32 yards on throws 11 yards or more downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On passes 10 yards or less, he was 15-for-18 for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

How the Bengals stopped Peyton Manning

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
10:40
AM ET
CINCINNATI -- Peyton Manning had dominated the Cincinnati Bengals every time he played them.

Not only was the Denver Broncos quarterback 8-0 in his career versus Cincinnati, but he was 3-0 with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against them in the month of December. He had every reason in the world to believe he was going to roll over them once again, and this time with a national audience watching.

But that didn't happen.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals had a good plan for slowing Peyton Manning on Monday night, and it included constant pressure from the defensive line.
In arguably their best overall performance against a quality opponent this season, the Bengals scratched out a 37-28 win Monday night that put them in the playoffs for a fourth straight year and silenced criticisms about their inability to win in prime time.

Atop the list of contributing factors to Cincinnati's success was stopping Manning. They forced him into throwing four interceptions, the sixth time in his regular season and postseason career that he has done that. It was the first time it happened to him since 2010.

So, what led to it? How did the Bengals stop Manning? With a combination of timely pressures from the defensive line, good play in the secondary, one key late coaching decision, and a Bengals offense that ran the ball like it was supposed to.

Defensive end Wallace Gilberry summed up the defensive line's success by saying the trick was "getting to [Manning] and hitting him."

According to Pro Football Focus, Manning was pressured 13 times. That includes nine quarterback hurries, three quarterback hits and one sack.

"If you let a guy like that settle his feet," Gilberry said, "he's going to make some big plays. We just stayed on him and stayed on him and stayed on him and stayed on him. I'm not sure how many times we hit him or sacked him, but it was enough to cause disruption and to give our guys on the back end time to make plays."

In the secondary, the Bengals rallied in the fourth quarter after a harrowing third that saw Manning lead a furious rally. Down 20-7 at halftime, Manning took the Broncos into the fourth quarter with a 28-27 lead.

It was during that third quarter that veteran cornerback Terence Newman allowed a series of catches, including a 33-yard completion that he also was flagged for defensive pass interference on, and a 46-yard catch. Not long after he gave up the latter of the two deep throws, Newman was replaced by third-year corner Dre Kirkpatrick. In the game's final three minutes, Kirkpatrick intercepted Manning twice, including once on a pass he returned 30 yards for a touchdown that extended the Bengals' tight lead.

"The guys on the back end did an outstanding job, not just in the fourth quarter, but all day," Gilberry said. "They've got big receivers, they're going to make plays. We get that. But it's up to us to limit those plays and that's what we did."

One of the other focuses the Bengals' offense had all week was to run the ball effectively enough that they kept it out of Manning's hands. Cincinnati rushed for 207 yards, marking the second straight game it has gone over the 200-yard mark. More importantly, the time on the ground taking time off the clock led the Bengals to a time-of-possession victory. They held the ball for 31:38, and Denver had it for 28:22.

For a deeper look at what went wrong for Manning on both long and short throws, read this from ESPN Stats & Information.
CINCINNATI -- When the Cincinnati Bengals arrived at Paul Brown Stadium for interviews last Tuesday, they knew they would be getting the questions.

Losers of two night games earlier in the season, they had a 2-6 record in prime time since 2011, the year Andy Dalton was made the starting quarterback. With an 8:30 p.m. kickoff on the horizon, reporters and fans wanted to know: why were they so bad in such big, nationally televised games?

The Bengals had few answers, but they did know that they were tired of having to answer the questions.

"It is annoying, and it's our job to make it unannoying," safety George Iloka said.

Though the questions probably won't completely fade after the Bengals' 37-28 win against the Denver Broncos on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," they ought to be silenced slightly entering next Sunday's night kickoff in Pittsburgh. Win again on the big stage, and now all of a sudden, the concerns about Dalton and the bright lights start to fade.

A playoff berth was the byproduct of Monday's victory, making it all the more sweet for the Bengals that they got in by winning the type of game so few believed they could. If they beat Pittsburgh, they will have clinched a second straight AFC North title, and -- coupled with a Denver loss to the Oakland Raiders next Sunday -- could finish with the AFC's No. 2 seed.

"Until we had a win like this, people kept saying we couldn't win in prime time," Dalton said. "So yes, it was big for us to get this win. Regardless of what people were saying, this win meant more because it got us in the playoffs. We know what we are going up against next week, but this was a big win for us."

Dalton is now the fifth quarterback in league history to lead his team to the playoffs in his first four seasons.

This victory was the kind that put veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth in a reflective mood. The Bengals have now reached the postseason a franchise-record four straight years, and have been to the playoffs five of the past six.

"I don't take that for granted," the nine-year veteran said. "I know a lot of good football players that never made it. And to be a captain for all of those. That's something I won't take for granted, and it's something I'm super proud of."

So was Marvin Lewis, who claimed Monday his 100th win as a head coach. In five playoff trips since 2005, his teams have yet to win.

"It's expected, but there's more out there," Lewis said. "Obviously, you've got to climb the mountain to get to this point, and [the players] have done that thus far. They just keep doing it and doing it and doing it, and we've got to just keep going. We've got another big week that's coming up."

After a day off Tuesday, the Bengals will treat the rest of the week like normal. They will practice Wednesday through Friday. That includes a Christmas Day practice that will be closed to media.
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CINCINNATI -- The fourth-quarter clock ticked to the final three minutes.

With his Denver Broncos trailing the Cincinnati Bengals by two points, Peyton Manning went through a series of pre-snap audibles and fake audibles as he tried to lead a 51st career comeback drive.

Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick peeked to his right and saw Manning flash a sign that he had seen in his week of film study and preparation.

Kirkpatrick could tell that Manning was about to throw his way.

An inside route by Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas and an outside read from Kirkpatrick later, and Manning all but handed the third-year defensive back his second interception of the season. Kirkpatrick returned it 30 yards for a touchdown that pushed the Bengals' lead to two scores. It was the singular play that defined a just-good-enough defensive performance in the Bengals' playoff-clinching, 37-28 win Monday night.

"I'm not saying we knew what he was going to do," said Kirkpatrick, who picked Manning off a second time nearly two minutes later to ice the game. "[But] I kind of knew in a sense that he was coming my way. I just played my technique, and everything came my way."

Although they intercepted Manning four times and were dominant at times, the Bengals lacked consistency on defense, especially during a third quarter in which Denver scored three touchdowns to erase a 20-7 halftime deficit.

"Even if it appeared that we were [impressive], they still scored points," safety George Iloka said. "It wasn't pretty, but with a quarterback like a Peyton, [Tom] Brady, Aaron Rodgers, it's a battle. You've got to play all four quarters."

In the past 14 months, each of those quarterbacks have gone down at Paul Brown Stadium. And just like they did with Manning, who entered with an 8-0 career record against Cincinnati, the Bengals needed some stroke of magic in the final minute to beat the other two. Against Brady last October, the Bengals won when Adam Jones intercepted a pass that he bobbled to himself in a driving rainstorm near the Bengals' goal line.

Monday's finish was eerily similar, all the way down to the rain showers that descended upon the stadium in the fourth quarter. Manning's receivers had trouble catching the ball in the weather, repeatedly dropping his passes onto the slick field turf.

According to the Bengals, that's not all that changed in the fourth quarter.

"We just said, 'We're not going to be beat,' and as a secondary especially, we did good at keeping our poise," safety Reggie Nelson said. "We just didn't want to give the game away, period, because they've been down numerous times and came back on numerous teams."

What also changed was that at the end of the third quarter, the Bengals switched from veteran cornerback Terence Newman to Kirkpatrick following a series of passes in which Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders burned Newman. On consecutive series, Newman was beaten on a 33-yard completion that he also was flagged with defensive pass interference on, and a 46-yard completion.

Not long after, in came Kirkpatrick, who effectively finished the game at the left boundary corner position. His emergence off the bench gave the Bengals a timely and adequate jolt ahead of a win that put them in the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight season.

"It's just what he does," Iloka said of Kirkpatrick. "He gets the job done and does it very well. I'm really proud of him. Like he always told y'all, he'll be ready when his time comes."

Some Bengals fans want his time to be now. They want him to start for Newman next week at Pittsburgh. That likely won't happen, but Kirkpatrick's time isn't far away.

"Good things come to those that wait," Kirkpatrick said.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos:

Kirkpatrick
A handful of footballs: Nearly an hour after he picked off Peyton Manning for the last time in a steady rain shower, Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick walked through locker room with his hands full of clothes and footballs. He had just answered the last question of an unexpected whirlwind postgame interview session. He apparently was in such a good mood he didn't finish putting the shirt on he was going to wear. As he smiled and said goodbye to a few passersby, he walked out into the chilly night in a tank top and shorts ... and with the two footballs. They weren't official game balls, but they were offerings to recognize his two-interception game. Both pickoffs came in the final three minutes.

Bernard offers respect: It could be easy for a once-rising star who lately has gotten outshined by a rookie to sulk and be bitter toward the player who has taken his limelight. But Giovani Bernard has decided not to be that way. He didn't have to do it, but Bernard gave respect to Jeremy Hill. As he got ready to leave late Monday night, Bernard navigated behind the slew of reporters that were standing at the locker next to him, turned toward his locker neighbor and tapped on him on the arm. When he got Hill's attention, he gave him a fist bump and congratulated him on his night. Hill rushed for 147 yards, becoming the third rookie in league history to have four 140-yard rushing performances in a season. Bernard, whose role has been diminished the last two weeks, had 81 total yards (36 rushing and 45 receiving).

Glad Green was hurt? Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth wasn't pleased Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green had to go through a painful injury, but he was happy to see how his young teammates responded to it. With their superstar wideout sidelined with an arm injury suffered during an early Broncos pick-six, the Bengals responded. "I loved it," Whitworth said. "Sure, it's a negative feeling at the time it happened, but the way guys just kind of buckled their chinstraps and just said, 'All right, we're going to win this thing one way or another,' that's something that I had not seen these young guys do in the past. I loved the resiliency. I love the attitude of that."

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
11:52
PM ET

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 37-28 victory over the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday.

What it means: First and foremost, this puts the Bengals in the playoffs. This is the first time in franchise history they've been to the postseason four straight seasons. At worst, they would be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed and play on the road in the wild-card round. At best, they could be the AFC's No. 2 seed and get a first-round bye. They'll need a win next week at Pittsburgh and a Broncos loss or tie in order for that to happen. With this nationally televised win, the Bengals began changing the narrative that they don't show up in prime time. They are now 3-6 at night since Andy Dalton became their starting quarterback in 2011. After posting a 2.0 passer rating in their Thursday night loss to Cleveland last month, Dalton had an 89.6 Monday.

Stock watch: It's safe to say cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick's stock is rising. After occupying a spot on the Bengals' bench for most of the season, he emerged at the right moment against the Broncos. With 12-year veteran Terence Newman struggling in the third quarter, Bengals coaches turned to their third-year backup to keep receiver Demaryius Thomas, among others, in check. Kirkpatrick did even better than that, coming away with two pivotal interceptions in the final three minutes. His 30-yard interception return for touchdown with 2:41 remaining extended Cincinnati's lead, and his interception with a minute left sealed the win.

Game ball: For the first time since 1997, a Bengals rookie went over the 1,000-yard rushing plateau when Jeremy Hill finished Monday's game with 1,024 for the season. There have been only 21 1,000-yard seasons in Bengals history, with 10 players hitting the mark. Hill surpassed the milestone with a 10-yard, third-quarter carry. One play later, he fumbled inside Denver's 10. Hill had 147 yards on 22 carries as he made his second straight start as the Bengals' featured back over Giovani Bernard. This was the fourth game in which Hill collected 100 yards or more.

Injury slows Green: Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green didn't factor into the Bengals' stat line after getting banged up on Cincinnati's second drive of the game. With offensive coordinator Hue Jackson trying to shake things up early, Dalton threw a pass instead of handing off to start the series. His throw, intended for Green, was high, causing Green to jump for it. He got a hand on it, but after the tip, Broncos corner Aqib Talib dove for the ball and intercepted the pass. Untouched, Talib got up and ran the interception back for a 33-yard touchdown. At the same instant the ball deflected into Talib's hands, Green was popped hard in his right arm by the helmet of a Broncos defensive back. Green immediately jogged to the sideline in obvious pain. ESPN cameras caught him wincing multiple times as trainers tried to evaluate him on the sideline. He kept checking in and out of the game. Targeted three times, Green had zero catches for only the second time in his career. His only other no-catch game was the Week 2 contest versus Atlanta in which he played only six plays.

What's next? The AFC North title is on the line for the Bengals next week when they travel to Pittsburgh for the regular-season finale Sunday. The game was flexed from its originally scheduled 1 p.m. ET kickoff to 8:30 p.m. It's a bit of a grudge match for the Bengals, who lost 42-21 on Dec. 7 in their last meeting with the Steelers. With a win, Cincinnati can claim its second straight division championship.
CINCINNATI -- As had been expected, the Cincinnati Bengals will be without their starting "Sam" linebacker Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos.

Emmanuel Lamur was one of seven inactives for the Bengals after appearing on the injury report all this week with a hamstring issue that cropped up late in last week's game at Cleveland. He practiced in a limited capacity Saturday, and had been expected to test out the injury before the game.

Lamur
Lamur
He didn't come out onto the field within the four-hour pregame window that injured Bengals typically give their tweaked injuries a go. Coach Marvin Lewis was optimistic over the weekend that having the extra day to prepare for Monday's game might be just enough for the hamstring to get healthy. Apparently it wasn't.

Officially, Lamur will be replaced by rookie Marquis Flowers at "Sam" linebacker. In his pass-coverage responsibilities, though, Lamur will be replaced by safety Taylor Mays, who spent the week in linebackers' meetings. Mays played that spot parts of last season before he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 8. He was playing in place of Lamur, who missed all season with a hurt shoulder.

In addition to Lamur's absence Monday, the Bengals also will miss defensive tackle Devon Still. It's the second game he has been declared inactive, and the third contest he has missed this season. The third-year player wasn't on the 53-man roster for the season opener.

With Still inactive, the Bengals kept active two promising young backup defensive ends to help bolster the team's pass-rushing depth. Margus Hunt and Will Clarke presumably will play at points in the game. The rookie Clarke has seen his playing time increase in recent weeks, getting a season-high 19 snaps in last week's game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His playing time spike correlated with Hunt being injured the last four games.

The Bengals also will give starts to veteran Eric Winston at right offensive tackle, and Jeremy Hill at running back. This will be the second straight week that Hill will be the starter with a healthy Giovani Bernard. Hill's only other starts this season came when Bernard was injured.

Here is the full list of inactives for both teams:

Bengals inactives
QB AJ McCarron
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
LB Emmanuel Lamur
OT Tanner Hawkinson
DT Devon Still
WR James Wright
WR Greg Little

Broncos inactives
CB Tony Carter
OT Paul Cornick
RB Ronnie Hillman
TE Dominique Jones
LB Brandon Marshall
OT Michael Schofield
DE Quanterus Smith
CINCINNATI -- There's something else on the line when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos on ESPN's "Monday Night football" that's barely been mentioned this week.

The AFC's 2-seed.

It's quite possible that if the heaviest of dominoes fall not only Monday night but also next week, the Bengals could end up having the opening round of the playoffs off.

What has to happen in order for that to take place?

Primarily, three things: for the Bengals (currently the AFC's No. 3 postseason seed) to beat the Broncos (currently the No. 2 seed), for the Bengals to beat the Steelers next week at Pittsburgh, and for the Broncos to lose next week to Oakland. Even if the Bengals win Monday but have a second tie of the season next week, there are ways for them to get the No. 2 seeding. They are detailed below.

It's improbable that 11-3 Denver would fall to the three-win Raiders next week, let alone that it would drop two straight games entering the postseason. But it's still possible. It's also very possible that Cincinnati could end up winning these last two games, even if they both are in prime time. Next Sunday's game at Pittsburgh was just flexed into an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff.

As you well know, the Bengals enter Monday's game having gone 2-6 in nighttime regular-season games since 2011, the year quarterback Andy Dalton became the starter.

Before the Bengals can truly entertain thoughts about playoff seeding, they have to first make the postseason. After a little confusion from information passed along from the NFL earlier in the day, we have updated scenarios for what must take place in order for the Bengals to clinch a playoff spot, even if they go winless in their last two games.

Here they are from the NFL and ESPN Stats & Information:

IF DENVER DEFEATS CINCINCNNATI

Bengals clinch AFC North title with:

1) CIN win

Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot with:

1) CIN tie OR

2) BAL loss or tie OR

3) SD loss

IF CINCINNATI DEFEATS DENVER

Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot

Cincinnati clinches AFC North title with:

1) CIN win or tie

Cincinnati clinches a first-round bye (and No. 2 seeding) with:

1) CIN win + DEN loss (vs. OAK) or tie OR

2) CIN tie + DEN loss + IND loss or tie

W2W4: Broncos vs. Bengals

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
3:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A few storylines to watch Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium:

Ayodele
Knighton
Line anchors: Keep your eyes trained on the Bengals' offensive line. Not only will the unit have a massive challenge to contend with in the running game -- both literally and figuratively -- in the form of Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, but it will have a pair of tough-to-block edge rushers in the passing game, too. An athletic 330 pounds, Knighton is adept at plugging holes on interior rushing plays. The presence of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the outside doesn't make it easy for rushers to cut back outside if the inside run is a no-go. Ware and Miller also are among the game's most effective rushers in passing situations. If the Bengals have any hope at moving the football Monday, it will be to play physically with Knighton in the run, and to provide solid pockets when quarterback Andy Dalton is passing. One way the Bengals are doing that on the right side of their line, in particular, is by anchoring the unit with veteran Eric Winston. Expect him to get his first Bengals start there, lining up opposite Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Red zone a factor: Cincinnati's defense will try hard to keep the Broncos out of the red zone, but recent trends show that might not be a bad thing if it happens. According to ESPN Stats & Information, after leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR through his first 11 games, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning ranks outside the top 20 in each category over the past three weeks. The absence of tight end Julius Thomas for two of those three contests correlated with the declining production inside the 20. Although Thomas returned last week, he wasn't that effective on his hurt ankle. He is considered healthier this week, which means you should look for him to play a bigger role in the red zone Monday for the Broncos. He entered the week leading the league in red-zone touchdown catches with nine.

Green
Toss it to Green: As much as we have hammered home all week the importance of the Bengals running the football in this game, you simply can't ignore the fact that this is a team with A.J. Green on its roster. Cincinnati has to be smart with the way it runs the ball, but it also has to be savvy about the way it utilizes Green, the Pro Bowl wide out who went on a four-game tear in November and early December, catching 33 passes for 529 yards and three touchdown. He was at his best in that stretch in the deep passing game. Of his 33 catches, 12 came on throws that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. All three of his touchdowns came on such throws, including an 81-yard reception against Pittsburgh. What helped him get open downfield for those catches? The running game. Specifically, the play-action pass that resulted from it. With linebackers and safeties flowing up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Green has been single-covered by the end of recent games. Be on the lookout for similar opportunities Monday if Cincinnati's running game gets going early.
CINCINNATI -- Next Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game will be in prime time.

The NFL announced during halftime of Sunday's night's Seahawks-Cardinals game that next Sunday's game between the AFC North rivals will have an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Heinz Field. It will be broadcast by NBC.

The game had been originally scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, but was subject to being flexed into the night slot because of the NFL's rules about late-season scheduling. Typically, games are flexed in Week 17 if postseason implications are on the line.

It was a bit of a surprise announcement, considering the Bengals could actually end their playoff mystery Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN. With a victory, Cincinnati would be in. With a loss, the Bengals must win next week at Pittsburgh in order to reach the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight year. The Bengals could still sneak in with two losses, but it would need help from others.

The Steelers clinched a playoff spot Sunday afternoon by beating Kansas City 20-12.

If the Bengals win Monday's game over the Broncos, they still could play for a division title. Currently, Cincinnati leads the AFC North, but only by a half game by virtue of its Week 6 tie with Carolina.

Coming six days after the Bengals' game against the Broncos, this will be Cincinnati's fourth prime-time game this season. It went 0-2 in the first two, losing in blowout fashion to New England (43-17) and Cleveland (24-3). Since 2011, the year quarterback Andy Dalton became starter, the Bengals are 2-6 in prime time. Factor in an 0-3 record in the playoffs since then and their "big-game" record drops to 2-9.

Pittsburgh won the teams' Week 14 meeting in Cincinnati 42-21, bolstered by 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
CINCINNATI -- If Peyton Manning ends up playing for the Denver Broncos on Monday night, the Cincinnati Bengals could be without one of their best weapons for combating him.

Lamur
Lamur
Although he practiced Saturday morning for the first time this week, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was listed later in the day as doubtful on the Bengals' final injury report of the week.

He could be a game-time decision.

"He's made a lot of progress," coach Marvin Lewis said. "With the extra day this week, obviously that helps a lot."

Lamur had an extra day early in the week to rest his sore hamstring, and he will have time even early Monday to get it treated several hours before the game if need be.

"It wasn't real severe, and we shut him down right away," Lewis said of the injury.

Lamur was run from last Sunday's 30-0 win against the Browns because of the issue.

If Lamur is ruled unable to play, the Bengals likely will use a combination of backups Marquis Flowers, Chris Carter and Nico Johnson at the "Sam" linebacker position he occupies in the base defense. When Cincinnati shifts into nickel packages as it likely will do often against the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end sets, safety Taylor Mays likely will come off the bench and shift into Lamur's role as the cover linebacker. Despite playing the "Sam" in base, it has been Lamur's responsibility to defend tight ends in passing situations this season.

Last season, with Lamur out for the season, Mays moved down into a linebacker role. He was covering tight ends in a similar capacity before suffering his own season-ending shoulder injury in Week 8.

In addition to watching Lamur, eyes will be on Manning before Monday's game, too. After fighting through a thigh injury and an illness this week, the quarterback was listed as questionable on the Broncos' Saturday injury report.

Here is Cincinnati's full injury report*:

DOUBTFUL
WR James Wright (knee)
LB Lamur (hamstring)

QUESTIONABLE
QB AJ McCarron (illness)

PROBABLE
WR Brandon Tate (illness)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
OT Marshall Newhouse (illness)

Receiver A.J. Green was taken off the injury report. He's healthy after dealing with an illness this week.

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