CINCINNATI --It's Week 16, with a playoff-like atmosphere -- and, as quarterback Peyton Manning noted to ESPN on Sunday night, playoff-like implications for the Broncos, since a win or a tie ensures that they get a first-round bye, advancing them one round closer to their Super Bowl goal.
But even as the clock speeds toward midnight in the NFL's 95th regular season, teams continue to look for improvement. The Broncos undertook a dramatic offensive overhaul last month, and beginning with the 39-36 win over Miami Nov. 23, have run more often than any other team -- and become more efficient by doing so.
In the last four weeks, their average in adjusted points per possession (adjusted = not counting kneeldowns) for drives led by Manning is 3.00 points; in the first 10 games of the regular season, the average in adjusted PPP with Manning was 2.49.
The evolution never stops; you just hope it's positive, and doesn't become a devolution. There are areas that the Broncos want to improve -- and the work in that direction goes on every day, just as it does during OTAs and training camp.
One area is in the passing game, and in Manning developing timing with Emmanuel Sanders. The overall numbers indicate that the two are doing just fine, thank you. Sanders has the best numbers of his career, and Manning has a threat that has become more potent with the viability of play-action as the run game blossomed in recent weeks.
But Manning left last week's 22-10 win at San Diego knowing that he could have done more.
"Boy, I thought we had a chance to really get him going early. Had him open on a post-corner (route). I might have held it one extra second," Manning said, referring to the sack and fumble on the third play of the game that Ryan Clady recovered.
"Any time you can get a guy going early that can help a guy's, just the flow of the game. So we're always looking to get him touches."
Later, they did -- a 33-yard pass to Sanders on which the receiver adjusted to the football in mid-flight, moving the Broncos into field-goal range with 7:01 left in regulation. It was a crucial connection, setting up the 49-yard Connor Barth field goal that put the Broncos in front by two scores. And it was a product of their months of practice repetitions to build their cohesion.
"He's an explosive guy and I feel good about the timing with him," Manning said. "The work that he and I have put in together has paid off. So we just have to find the attempts to get the ball to him because he makes a lot of plays when the ball gets in his hands."
Added Sanders: "I'm just looking forward to continuously getting better. Obviously we've connected on a lot of great passes and a lot of great plays. But there's still more plays to be made out here."
They hope to make some of those plays Monday night. Here are the three keys to the showdown of AFC division leaders on the north bank of the Ohio River:
- GENERATE TAKEAWAYS.**
The arithmetic is simple: the Bengals average 1.1 giveaways in their nine wins, and 2.2 in their four losses and a tie against Carolina.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's three interceptions against the Browns on Thursday Night Football in Week 10 caught national attention.
Errant throws have not always dealt the Bengals a knockout blow; they are 2-1-1 this year when opponents pick off at least two of his passes, and 3-1-1 when he turns the ball over at least twice, including fumbles lost. But in his four-year career, the Bengals are 12-10-1 (0-2 in the playoffs) when Dalton accounts for two giveaways -- and 27-12 (0-1 in the playoffs) when he has one or no turnovers.
2. DON'T LET CINCINNATI'S RUNNING BACKS GET TO THE SECOND LEVEL.
A heavy burden rests upon the defense, which must play in the near term without linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a foot sprain that was not was bad as he initially feared, but will still sideline him Monday. Jeremy Hill has power, and has rushed for at least 148 yards in three of the last seven weeks. Giovani Bernard has speed, and has settled in as an effective change-of-pace back.
Marshall did a splendid job at filling the gap created after the Broncos' defensive line did its work. Now, that task could fall to rookie Todd Davis, who saw the most playing time in place of Marshall and Danny Trevathan last week.
"We believe in the guys that we have," said middle linebacker Steven Johnson. "We're ready for the challenge and I'm pretty sure we'll rise up to it."
3. MAKE THE BENGALS DEFENSE TENTATIVE.
Doing that requires creating enough balance to ensure that Cincinnati cannot be overaggressive with the pass rush it generates. If the Bengals must consider the playfake, account for the run and play on their heels, Manning and the passing game has a chance to average over 10 yards per attempt and maintain the efficiency of the passing game, as he did last week in San Diego.
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The clash between physical freaks Aqib Talib and A.J. Green should be fun to watch, while Terrance Knighton draws another rookie center.