A marquee AFC battle featuring backups at quarterback highlights the Monday Night Football game pitting the Bengals and Broncos at Denver, where Cincinnati's AJ. McCarron and the Broncos' Brock Osweiler aren't whom schedule makers were expecting.
Peyton Manning (foot) and Andy Dalton (thumb) are out of their respective lineups due to injury. As fate will have it Monday in front of a national television audience, Osweiler and McCarron are set to play pivotal roles as each team vies for the very-much-available No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff chase.
The Bengals (11-3) have clinched the AFC North division and a playoff berth, and trail New England (12-2) for the No. 1 seed. The Broncos (10-4) haven't clinched anything, with Kansas City (9-5) one game back in the AFC West. No. 2 Cincinnati is one game ahead of No. 3 Denver in the AFC playoff seeding, putting the Bengals, as they say, in control of their own destiny.
Cincinnati wins out, it gets the No. 2 seed and the resulting bye week plus a second-round home playoff game. That's a dream scenario for the banged-up Bengals, who've seen their share of recent playoff ousters on the road, including last season's finale at Indianapolis. Therefore, coach Marvin Lewis isn't taking lightly Mr. Osweiler, who's completing a respectable 60 percent of his passes with a rating of 84.8 after taking over for Manning.
“With the football game at hand, we are playing against an offense that’s well tooled," Lewis said at his weekly news conference. "The young quarterback (Osweiler), last five or six weeks, has done a good job playing for them. He has great vision of the field."
Osweiler, a second-round Denver draft choice in 2012, has thrown for 1,436 yards on 6.71 yards per attempt since taking over for Manning Nov. 15. He passed for 296 yards with three touchdowns and one interception last week against Pittsburgh, but completed just 47 percent of his passes.
Lewis knows that can be good enough with receivers such as Demaryius Thomas (1,128 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (969 yards), who are on target for their second straight 1,000-yard seasons as teammates. But, the coach smells opportunity.
“They have an excellent receiver group, and tight end group. The backs, (C.J.) Anderson and (Ronnie) Hillman, do a great job of staying behind that line and running behind their pads," Lewis said. "It’s a well put-together offense."
Although Osweiler isn't as tall a task as vintage Manning, he's been more efficient than his future Hall of Fame teammate this season. Manning had nine TDs and 17 interceptions before he went to the sidelines. Osweiler has eight TDs and four interceptions since taking over. Osweiler also is taller than Manning, standing 6-7. But Lewis suggested that Osweiler doesn't play that tall.
"Well, it’s a plus that he’s a three-quarter-delivery guy," said the coach. "He does get some balls tipped. We have to do a good job. We set out each week to go through the fundamentals, and take care of things one step at a time. Obviously, that is just as important this week.”
With tall, fast and rangy defensive ends Carlos Dunlap (6-6) and Michael Johnson (6-7) on the opposing side, it could be a potential flaw the Bengals exploit against Osweiler. Additionally, Osweiler's lack of mobility makes him a liability when he starts roaming around in the backfield. He averages just 3.1 yards per carry with a long run of 8.
The Broncos prefer to keep him upright and safe in the pocket so Osweiler can better manage the game, although he did score a rushing touchdown last week against the Steelers. He's been sacked 19 times in 214 pass attempts. The older and supposedly less mobile Manning was sacked 15 times in 322 attempts. Dunlap and Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins rank in the NFL top 10 in sacks, combining for 20.5. If Osweiler can't get rid of the football fast enough Monday night, he could get the daylights beat out of him.
The Bengals hope to have everybody covered Monday, creating coverage sacks. That's not a guarantee with Thomas and Sanders, not to mention tight ends Owen Daniels and newly acquired former 49er Vernon Davis, who've combined for nearly as many receptions (60) as Sanders (67). When Osweiler goes to the air, he'll be playing to the strengths of NFL interceptions leader Reggie Nelson. The Bengals' safety has a career-high eight picks. While filling in against the run, he'll be stalking Osweiler's every move.
The Broncos' top-ranked pass defense, of course, will be doing the same against McCarron, who's making just his second NFL start. Which backup will be better? And, will it matter with these two defenses on the field Monday night. Time will tell. But, time is not on the backups' side, even though they are the younger players.
The Broncos at some point this season hope to have Manning back at quarterback, which is one of the reasons they would love to secure one of the top two AFC seeds, potentially allowing more time for his healthy return. The Bengals are hoping to have a healthy Dalton at some point in the playoffs.