NFL Preview - Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4)|
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Third-year quarterback Andy Dalton has gotten
significant credit - and deservedly so - for the turnaround of the Cincinnati
Still, the team's late-season success in 2013 may depend less on Dalton, and
more on the players to whom he's handing the ball in the backfield.
The 8-4 Bengals can take a step closer to an AFC North Division title on
Sunday when the host the AFC South-leading Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown
Cincinnati leads the second-place Baltimore Ravens by two games with four
games to play, including a season-ending home game with the defending Super
Bowl champions. The Bengals dropped a 20-17 decision to the Ravens in a Week
10 game at Baltimore.
Win No. 9 may come courtesy of the ground attack that's been good for 138.3
yards per game over the last four games. Cincinnati had 164 yards rushing - a
yard off its season-best single-game total - in a 17-10 road win at San Diego
Dalton had a TD pass and an interception in the win, but has thrown three more
picks (9) than touchdowns (6) in his last four games while compiling a 59.8
passer rating and a 2-2 record.
Indianapolis is fifth from the bottom of the league in rush defense, allowing
128.6 yards per game.
"We've been able to do different things," Dalton said. "Certain games we've
run the ball well and the run game has been working, and other games we've had
to throw it a lot. It depends on the game and what we're needing to do that's
helped us win a lot of games this year.
"We can do so many different things, so as long as you're winning games and
it's working, that's all that matters."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 92 yards on 20 attempts against the Chargers and was
complemented by Giovani Bernard, who added 57 yards on 14 carries. The Bengals
are one of just six teams in the league that's still without a 100-yard rusher
in any game.
The dual attack yields multiple options for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden..
"It lets (Gruden) utilize his entire playbook and not limit him at all,"
Bernard said. "If there's a situation where I need to go in, he'll throw me
in. If there's a situation he wants Benny in, he'll throw him in. It
definitely helps us and we definitely use it to our advantage."
Though the run game is certainly an imposing challenge, almost as much of a
concern to Colts coach Chuck Pagano is the Cincinnati pass rush - particularly
against a depleted offensive line.
Indianapolis right guard Jeff Linkenbach is questionable this week with a
quadriceps injury, after he'd been filling in for original starter Mike
McGlynn since he was shelved with a fractured thumb on Nov. 10.
The Bengals have sacks opposing quarterbacks 18 times in their last five games
and have held passers to a conference-low 5.28 yards per pass attempt. Colts
quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked five times - a season-worst - in last
week's home win against Tennessee.
Luck was sacked 41 times as a rookie last season. Similar to Dalton, he's
skidded to a 66.7 percent passer rating in the last four games with two
touchdowns and five interceptions.
"It's our biggest concern right now, first and foremost," Pagano said. "That's
been since Day 1, since we drafted him No. 1, to protect 12. That's never
going to change."
Indianapolis can clinch an eighth division crown in 11 years with a win, or a
Titans loss to Denver. The Colts enter the week as the prospective No. 3 seed
in the AFC playoffs, though they'll lose that position with a loss to the
Bengals, who enter as the No. 4 seed.
"We're sitting in a good position, but nothing is sealed up," Pagano said. "We
control our own destiny. They understand the record, they understand the
division, they understand what we have to do to get into the playoffs.
Certainly, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves. The worst thing we can
do is get complacent."
Taking heat off Luck has been unheralded running back Donald Brown, who's
become a starter after sitting behind a trio of teammates - included much-
heralded trade acquisition Trent Richardson - since the start of the season.
Brown ran for 54 yards against Tennessee and scored from four yards out with
less than two minutes to play.
"He is the ultimate team guy," linebacker Robert Mathis said. "He doesn't
like to talk about himself because he's not his favorite subject. He just goes
to work and he just lets his play do all the talking."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Clean up your Luck.
In just less than two years in the league, Luck has shown himself a quality
weapon so long as he's upright and unhurried in the pocket. A key to him
utilizing his weapons will be how well the Colts are able to keep his
harassment level to a minimum.
Pound the rock.
It's not a difficult equation. A quality running team plus a defense that has
problems stopping the ground game usually equals success for the former.
That's what the Bengals will be counted on as Gruden goes all in with Green-
Ellis and Bernard, and uses Dalton in play-action schemes.
A pair of division leaders who look destined to reach the playoffs and perhaps
see each other there shortly after arrival. In a game with little to discern
one side from another, it'll be the basics - time possession and defense, not
to mention home field - that gets it done for Cincinnati.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 24, Colts 20
12/05 10:52:23 ET