Two struggling squads try and find their groove in the Mile High City
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for either Cincinnati or Denver. Things were supposed to be better. The Bengals were supposed to be improved coming off of a 6-9-1 showing in 2016, ready to compete in the AFC North. But Cincinnati’s offensive ineptitude has proven too much to overcome as the Bengals have lost two in a row, three of their last four, and fallen into sole possession of third place in the AFC North, just ahead of the winless Browns and well out of playoff contention. Technically, a win on Sunday would keep the Bengals’ postseason hopes alive — technically, but not in reality. And a loss could likely spell the end of head coach Marvin Lewis’ tenure and the beginning of at least a minor rebuild along the Ohio River.
Broncos head coach Vance Joseph is no longer having the time of his life. His squad opened the season winning three of their first four, but since have done their best Cleveland impression and dropped seven straight, five by double-digit margins. The once-mighty Bronco defense has folded and the quarterback position which was supposed to be solidified by Trevor Siemian, has been handed over to — wait for it — an injured Brock Osweiler. And if something should happen to him, waiting in the wings is also-injured second-year man Paxton Lynch, who hasn’t thrown a regular season pass in a calendar year. Things aren’t exactly looking up in the Mile High City.
Cincinnati at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 19 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Broncos -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Where has Denver’s defense gone?
It wasn’t long ago that the Broncos’ defense was being hailed as one of the greatest in the history of the NFL. Just two years removed from dragging a noodle-armed and neck-bone-infused Peyton Manning to a second Super Bowl victory, Denver’s salty defense has turned into mush. And what’s worse, the Broncos know that they are no longer seen as a threat by their peers.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe told ESPN.com, "I don't know, man, it's just sad. It's just real sad… It's sad we went from a championship-caliber team to a team that stinks and nobody respects us.”
To Wolfe’s point, if you give up 165 points over the course of five straight double-digit losses, and lose your previous two games by a combined 53 points, it’s hard for anyone that knows anything about football to think that you’re defense is good, whether you have Von Miller on the edge or not.
Luckily this week, the Broncos face the NFL’s worst offense, featuring a running game that averages a measly 70 yards per game and an air attack that has surpassed 300 yards only once this season. In short, it’s a good week for Denver’s defense to earn back a little respect, even if it is against the Bengals.
2. Speaking of the Bengals’ offense...
... what the heck happened to it?
Where is the dynamic, efficient unit that led the Bengals to four straight 10-win seasons? The offense was supposed to be remedied once former coordinator Ken Zampese was relieved of his duties in September in favor of quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor. That hasn’t happened. The Bengals are the worst offense in the NFL, averaging a lousy 274 yards and 16.6 points per game.
Was it so long ago that Andy Dalton (above, right) was the “Red Rifle,” that Cincy had a dynamic one-two ground game with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, and A.J. Green was the best receiver in the league? Now, Dalton looks like a shell of the 4,000-yard passer he was a season ago. Bernard hasn’t been the same since tearing his ACL last season. Hill would rather have ankle surgery that could have waited until after the season and not consult with the coaching staff about it. And Green is so desperate not to play he’d rather get kicked out of games by choke-slamming and punching Jalen Ramsey.
Out of these three issues, the mild-mannered Green’s seems to be the most confounding. Through nine games, Green has just 44 catches, 22 fewer than he did a season ago when he only played in 10 games. But it isn’t just the number of catches that are alarming, but the number of times that Dalton has targeted the six-time Pro Bowl receiver. Last season (10 games), Green was targeted an even 100 times. This year? 74.
It doesn’t take an offensive genius to know that getting the football to your best player is typically the right idea.
3. The future of Marvin Lewis
The uncertain future of Cincinnati’s head coach won’t have any direct effect on the outcome on the game Sunday, but there really isn’t a whole lot else to cover between two 3-6 teams who’ve completely forgot how to score points. It’s either this or we talk about Brock Osweiler. So, indulge me.
The only thing more confounding than Green’s stat line is the career of the NFL’s second-longest tenured head coach, Lewis. Now in his 15th season in Cincinnati, Lewis was zero playoff games and zero division titles during his term.
Zero. None. Nadda. Less than one.
In the “what have you done for me lately” NFL, Lewis is the ultimate outlier, and one who is going to miss the playoffs for a second straight season. Possibly, just maybe, he’ll finally find himself on the hot seat. Even if the Bengals front office opts to bring Lewis back, he should still move on to greener pastures. Lewis has always been known as a players’ coach, but currently he’s called out several of his players, including Hill, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and rookie wide receiver John Ross for various reasons.
While it would be highly unlikely that team president Mike Brown relieves Lewis of his duties during the season, a bad enough loss against a helpless Denver squad could be the end of the road for Lewis with the Bengals.
It will be interesting to see just how much fight this team has left in the tank for its head coach.
I’m assuming if you’re watching this game you’re either a diehard Bengals or Broncos fan, a football masochist, or stuck at someone’s gender reveal party with nothing else on TV but The Great British Baking Show (BBC America is running a Daniel Craig James Bond marathon, for what it’s worth). Eventually, the Broncos are going to have to figure it out defensively. There is too much talent on that side of the ball to be that bad for an eighth straight game, especially against the worst offense in the league. It may not be pretty, but I think that Denver comes away with a win and likely puts Marvin Lewis on the fast track out of Cincinnati.
Prediction: Broncos 17, Bengals 14
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.