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Bengals Preview, Week Sixteen: Broncos on Monday Night Football

The Bengals get Payton Manning and the Broncos at home on a Monday nighter for Christmas. Are they thrilled?

Hard to say. It could be a coming-of-age story tonight for Cincinnati. This team could deliver a whole two weeks of warm holiday cheer by pulling out a win against the greatest regular-season quarterback in history, or, they can carry on being themselves and be shellacked once more in front of a national audience.

The detractors are piling up against the Bengals, pointing to wins against bad teams and the big-stage shriveling the team suffers from nearly every time. Their schizophrenic ways have left experts and fans alike scratching their heads and guessing wrong about them at every turn. The only consistency most bother to identify within their body of work is that they can't win the big game. There are others, though.

One that jumps out right away is the running game to this offense; when it's rolling, so are the Bengals. Last week, the brain trust finally gave most of the load to the more-than-capable rookie Jeremy Hill and sprinkled in Giovani Bernard when the time seemed right. Why that approach took so long to materialize remains a question mark, but now that it has, the unit as a whole looks to have settled down and further grasp each individual role.

At this point, everyone knows that Andy Dalton is not a gunslinger who is going to shoot out with the league's elite. His expectations after nearly four years into the league are to control the damage, organize the group, and do just enough to go home winners. A steady run game allows him to play at a mediocre level and still have a chance to outlast some of the better teams.

To beat the best teams, however, Dalton must play exceptionally and there is not enough evidence out there to suggest that he can. He cannot throw interceptions against the Broncos or fumble on sacks or scrambles. He cannot feel pressured from the rush of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller and hesitate stepping up in the pocket. He cannot fail on most third downs. The more asked of Dalton, the more likely these scenarios unfold. Therefore, winning on the ground remains the absolute top priority for Hue Jackson and his gameplan.

On the other side, The Sheriff, 39-year old Payton Manning returns to the Queen City a little grayer, a little tired, but expecting to win. Scientists must marvel at Manning's ability to diagnose multiple, high-speed actions around him in the face of physical bodily harm, and not only make the correct selection but also perfectly deliver a thrown object to his target. And do it for almost 20 years.

An element to his game that is arguably overlooked, however, is how he helps his own run game. Running backs for years have thoroughly enjoyed playing behind 18, because of the space his passing threats provide, but also by the changes Manning makes to the original playcall at the line of scrimmage. When he sees a soft pocket in the defense, him checking off to a run can hurt more than a quick slant to Wes Welker; they both make for a first down, but the run gives the defense something else to think about.

One cannot assume that last week's defensive performance is indicative of a typical day for the group in the NFL. While it was nice to see the Bengals bottle up the run after being gashed the week before, a small rookie quarterback making his first start is solar systems away from the walking Canton statue of Payton Manning. The best way to go about Manning at this point of his career, though, is make him beat you on the deep ball. His is a surgeon when it comes to quick slants, shallow crosses or quick outs, especially on third down, and he will occasionally crank one deep to Demaryius Thomas, but his arm strength is not the same as it was when he was a younger man, and the deep throw is a generally less-accurate pass attempt. It makes sense to approach him with a loaded box to stop the run and crowd the middle on intermediate pass plays. The Bengals may give up one or two big plays this way, but that could be better then 12 or 13 medium plays, which sap the energy from the Cincinnati team.

The mountainous pass to victory in this one feels too perilous. The prime-time nonsense seems to have made a life of its own and has found a home in everyone's head. From what we've seen this year, the Bengals don't win this game. They need a Christmas miracle.

Broncos 32, Bengals 17

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor

Photo via Bengals Facebook