ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The Broncos look to make it three wins in a row as they travel to Cincinnati to take on the 3-4 Bengals, who are coming off three straight losses and a bye week. With a win on Sunday afternoon, Denver will take a one-game lead in the AFC West. Below are some important matchups on each side of the ball as well as a key to the game for the Broncos.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL: The Denver offense has thrived as of late. At Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, the unit will look to continue the success it has enjoyed since halftime of the San Diego game in Week 6.
In the last six quarters of play, the Broncos have scored 69 points. While two of those touchdowns came on the defensive side of the ball, it's tough to argue with the fact that quarterback Peyton Manning and the offensive unit enter Week 9 on a hot streak.
To keep Denver from finding its groove, the Bengals pass rush that has been solid all year will look for a big performance. Its 23 sacks in seven games put them in a tie for third in the NFL in that category.
Defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson lead the way for the defensive line with seven and six sacks, respectively.
"It's a big, physical group," quarterback Peyton Manning said of the Cincinnati front four. "It'll be a challenge for the guys up front. I think they have the option. They could rush four and create pressure on the quarterback or they probably have every blitz in the book. It kind of depends on whatever they want to do, so you've got to be prepared for all of it."
The Denver offensive line didn't allow a sack last week and earned John Madden's Most Valuable Protectors Award, so the battle in the trenches will be pivotal in deciding the outcome.
Fourth-year linebacker Ray Maualuga anchors the defense from the middle. Head Coach Marvin Lewis is urging him to step up and be a leader on Sunday.
"I would love our middle linebacker, Ray Mauluga, to take steps forward and take control," Lewis said. "We're looking for him to be the energy and the passion and everything that you want from your defensive leader."
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL: A.J. Green will be the priority for both teams when the Cincinnati offense is on the field. Quarterback Andy Dalton finds ways to get him the ball, even in double coverage, and the Broncos defense will certainly know where he is at all times.
"Coming into the game, we definitely know he is one of the key players," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said of Green. "He is circled on everybody's gameplan. He is a big-play receiver, so we definitely have to be on top of that."
But the Bengals have several other weapons on offense, such as tight end Jermaine Gresham, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Dalton said a key on Sunday is to get those players involved, as the defense will likely pay lots of attention to Green.
He specifically called out the importance of using Hawkins, a small and speedy receiver.
"He's such an explosive guy when he has the ball in his hands," Dalton said. "We definitely want to find ways to get him the ball, whether on screens, bubbles, whatever it is. Throw him the ball down the field because he gets separation. He does bring kind of a new dimension to our offense. It's just finding ways to get him the ball in space."
KEY TO THE GAME: Match the Mentality
The AFC North has a reputation for being a tough, physical and hard-hitting division. Players and coaches in Denver don't believe that to be a misnomer. Several players and coaches said this week that matching the Bengals' physicality and toughness, particularly in the trenches, will be crucial for Denver to come out on top.
"No. 1, they play in a very tough division," Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy said. "Every week, when they play in that division, is a street fight. We've got to go in there with the attitude that it's going to be a smash-mouth football game and then we've got to take care of what we've got to do."
The Broncos and Bengals have squared off 26 times, with the Broncos leading the series 18-8. Denver has been dominant at home, winning 12 of those 14 contests, but the series is deadlocked when playing in Cincinnati, splitting the 12 games when the Bengals have been the home team.
The Broncos have won the last three games against the Bengals, with Cincinnati's last victory coming in 2004. Click here to re-visit the "Immaculate Deflection" from 2009.
The Broncos (4-3) rank fourth or better in three major offensive categories: yards per game (405.4, 3rd), yards per play (6.1, 4th) and points per game (29.1, 4th). They also rank in the top five in both red zone touchdown percentage (68.0, 3rd) and third down percentage (44.3, 5th).
The Bengals (3-4) have allowed 17 sacks and sacked the opposing quarterback 23 times. The Broncos have allowed 10 sacks and sacked the opposing quarterback 19 times.
Cincinnati's average punt return is 13.4 yards to the Broncos' 8.0. Their average kickoff return is 23.5 yards to the Broncos' 18.0.
Cornerback Champ Bailey is one interception shy of tying former Bronco Mike Harden for the fifth-most interceptions in team history with 33.
Wide receiver Eric Decker has caught a touchdown pass in four consecutive games. If he gets one on Sunday, he'll become the fifth player in Broncos history with a receiving score in five straight contests.
With one more forced fumble, defensive end Elvis Dumervil will set a career high and take the NFL lead in that category with five.
Quarterback Peyton Manning needs one more game-winning scoring drive to pass Dan Marino (47) for the most all-time.
Running back Willis McGahee needs one rushing touchdown to pass Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville for the second-most among active NFL players.
Linebacker Von Miller is one tackle for a loss shy of tying Houston's J.J. Watt for the NFL lead in that category.
BACK TO BENGAL-TOWN
Wide receiver Andre Caldwell spent the last four seasons with Cincinnati, appearing in 51 games with 14 starts. Caldwell caught a touchdown pass for the Bengals the last time the two teams faced off in 2011.
Rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe spent the last four years at the University of Cincinnati.
Safety David Bruton hails from Miamisburg, Ohio, an hour north of Cincinnati.
The game will air on CBS 4, with Greg Gumbel (play-by-play) and Dan Dierdorf (color commentary) calling the game.
Locally, KOA Radio (850 AM) will feature Dave Logan (play-by-play) and Ed McCaffrey (color commentary) with Alan Roach reporting from the sidelines.