Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) at Denver Broncos (8-6) ==================================================
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 24th meeting. Broncos lead 15-8 in the series. The last four games have taken place in Cincinnati, with the teams splitting. The last meeting was on Monday night in 2004, with the Bengals winning 23-10. The Broncos are 10-2 in games played in Denver. The teams have not played in Denver since 1997. It will be Cincinnati's first game at Invesco Field at Mile High.
2006 RANKINGS: Bengals: offense 7th (22nd rush, 5th pass); defense 29th (13th rush, 32nd pass). Broncos: offense 21st (6th rush, 25th pass); defense 13th (12th rush, 22nd pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 20-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: Don't expect the Bengals to play a soft Cover-2 like they did against the Colts on Monday night. They want to get after Broncos rookie QB Jay Cutler and attempt to force some turnovers on the road. Cutler has proven he has a cannon for an arm and the Bengals' secondary struggled to keep up with the Colts' receivers, but Denver still wants to give its young signal-caller plenty of help from the ground game. There should be an outstanding battle when the Bengals have the ball between WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Broncos CBs Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams -- two of the better tandems at their respective positions. But for QB Carson Palmer to make the no-huddle attack work and wear the Denver defense down, he must receive better protection than he did against Indianapolis.
FAST FACTS: Bengals: Clinch playoff spot with a win, a loss by Buffalo and a loss by Jacksonville or the Jets. ... Houshmandzadeh needs 57 receiving yards for his first 1,000-yard season. Broncos: Clinch playoff spot with a win, a loss by Kansas City and a loss by Jacksonville or the Jets. ... C Tom Nalen will play in his 188th game for Denver, fourth-most in franchise history. ... PK Jason Elam needs two points for an NFL-record 14th consecutive 100-point season.
--QB Carson Palmer joked with reporters and a TV camera crew watching the start of practice Thursday afternoon. Palmer, who did not practice Wednesday because of a sore throwing shoulder, pulled his arm down in mock pain after lifting it to throw a pass.
Then he fired a spiral to backup quarterback Anthony Wright.
Earlier in practice, when players were stretching under supervision of a trainer, Palmer said he was going to wait until it rained harder before he would throw. A rumor Internet site reported that Palmer might have rotator cuff damage, which Palmer and the Bengals both refuted Wednesday.
"There's nothing to this," Palmer said this Thursday in the locker room. "I don't want to answer any questions about it. My shoulder is fine. There's nothing to this. I don't know where this came from. Everything is great."
Palmer remained listed as probable on the official injury report and did practice Thursday. "Just rest, just a day of rest," Palmer said of sitting out the 11-on-11 team session Wednesday.
--CB Deltha O'Neal will be allowed to drive to and from work while awaiting trial on a DUI charge, a Clermont County Municipal Court judge decided this afternoon. Judge James Shriver said that O'Neal, 29, also can drive for medical purposes. O'Neal was arrested at a DUI checkpoint early Dec. 9 on Ohio 125 in Pierce Township. His driver's license was suspended automatically because he had a blood alcohol level of 0.10, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The legal limit is .08. A pretrial hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 1. O'Neal, who appeared in court, has pleaded not guilty.
--WR Chad Johnson (ankle) remained probable but did return to practice.
--LT Levi Jones (knee) remained questionable but did not practice. He had practiced Wednesday. The Bengals would like to get Jones back to play against Denver's fast front seven.
--WR Skyler Green, acquired last week off waivers from Dallas, said he wants to get a foothold on special teams. "I want to come in and play football like I've always done," said Green, a rookie who played college ball at LSU. "I want to get in on special teams and work myself into the offense. No doubt, I think I can be a great punt returner here. I saw some things on the sideline (Monday night at Indianapolis) that maybe I could turn into big plays."
--Coach Mike Shanahan excused two players from practice Thursday, and several others were late because of a blizzard that hit Denver on Wednesday. The weather forced the team to change many of its preparation plans.
--WR Javon Walker returned to practice Thursday. He has a separated shoulder but it is mild and he should be able to play.
--CB Karl Paymah might not get much playing time on defense this week because Darrent Williams should return from a toe injury. But Paymah made a solid impression, a good step for the second-year corner.
--TE Stephen Alexander will be able to play through rib injuries. He played last week and has practiced all week.
--QB Jay Cutler has played in cold weather games before. He grew up in Santa Claus, Ind., so he is used to some cold weather. A blizzard that hit Denver is supposed to pass by the weekend, but temperatures could still be cool.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Broncos -- whom the Bengals will play Sunday at Denver in a game with huge playoff implications -- are ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing this season at 136.4 yards a game. And they've finished in the top 10 in league rankings in 10 of the 11 seasons with Mike Shanahan as coach.
In fact, since Shanahan took over in 1995, the Broncos lead the NFL in total rush yards.
"They've had that blocking technique there for years," Bengals defensive end Bryan Robinson said. "And it's one of those you want to stay off the ground. They do a good job of cutting out the backside and running the ball up in there. You want to stay square to the line of scrimmage and should be OK."
The Bengals have allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards in four of the past five games. Indianapolis had 112 rushing yards Monday night but just a 3.9-yard average.
"It's always our main focus to stop the run," Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers said. "If they can establish the run, then they have control of the game. That's always our focus."
Getting a lead and controlling the Denver run game would put more pressure on Broncos rookie quarterback Jay Cutler, who will be making his fourth NFL start. In his three starts, Cutler has 82 pass attempts. The Broncos have run 100 rush plays -- including 38 Sunday at Arizona -- in those three games. Tatum Bell leads the Broncos with 927 rush yards. Mike Bell has 542.
Robinson and fellow defensive linemen Sam Adams and John Thornton have played against Denver before, as have Geathers and fellow end Justin Smith. Rookie tackle Domata Peko has not.
"They cut a lot on the backside," Peko said. "We've got to use our hands and feet. You have to focus on your dude and keep your feet moving. I heard a couple of years ago they cut one of our players."
In the Monday night game in 2004 at Cincinnati, Broncos offensive tackle George Foster came back on a play to cut Bengals defensive tackle Tony Williams by diving at his legs. Williams suffered a broken ankle and had to undergo season-ending surgery. The hit was ruled clean by the NFL office.
Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is kind of skeptical this week.
Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, who is never shy about baiting opposing cornerbacks, was warm and fuzzy towards Bailey this week. He said he wouldn't imagine trash talking Bailey.
"Never, never, never, never," Johnson said. "There's some people you have such a high level of respect for, where talking isn't going to affect him anyway."
Johnson said he and Bailey are friends. Bailey said he's talked to Johnson a few times, and would be open to Johnson's suggestion that they have dinner the night before this Sunday's game.
However, Bailey wondered if Johnson had ulterior motives this week.
"I feel like he's hyping me up," Bailey said. "But it's appreciated from a guy of his talent."
The last time Bailey faced Johnson, the Bengals receiver got the best of the matchup. Johnson caught seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown against Bailey in a 2004 game. Johnson downplayed that game, saying he got lucky.
Bailey hasn't always shadowed the opponent's best receiver this year, but Johnson said that's what he expects this week.
"I would hope he would follow me throughout the whole game," Johnson said. "If I went to the bench, I would hope he would go to the bench with me."
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