The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos hit the road for the first time this season and face a stiff test against a Cincinnati Bengals team that not only has their sights set on another playoff appearance, but have their backs against the wall looking to avoid a 1-2 start to the year.
Denver is facing its first bit of adversity in 2016 after pulling out a win over Indianapolis last week. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware is out, big free-agent acquisition Donald Stephenson left his right tackle post early against the Colts and the team may be down to just one tight end this Saturday. Not exactly the news head coach Gary Kubiak wants to hear as quarterback Trevor Siemian makes his first start without the benefit of a home crowd.
On the other sideline, the Bengals are also dealing with their own issues in getting off to a relatively slow start through two weeks. Quarterback Andy Dalton has put up some impressive stats, especially when finding his favorite target A.J. Green down the field, but the offense isn’t quite hitting on all cylinders given its struggles in the red zone and in the run game. The defense still has a wealth of talent and will be counted on to come up big in this AFC clash between potential playoff teams.
The Broncos won last season’s meeting between the two franchises and five of the last six overall in the series. Kubiak has won every meeting with Cincinnati as a head coach but the former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator went 0-for-2 against the team back in 2014.
Denver at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 25 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Bengals -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Siemian hits the road
Trevor Siemian has played fine as the starting quarterback for Denver but he’ll face his stiffest test yet by going on the road to a hostile environment for the first time and facing a Paul Guenther defense that is going to be much tougher than last week’s opponent, Indianapolis. While the young signal-caller has made a few mistakes so far this season, he’s also battled through them to regroup and lead his team to two wins. Seeing how he responds in Week 3 will be big in determining what kind of ceiling the Broncos have in 2016. Either way, expect a steady dose of handoffs against a defense allowing 4.2 yards per carry.
2. Containing A.J. Green
Green is well respected around the league as one of the best there is and showed it by torching the Jets secondary for 180 yards in Week 1. Things weren’t quite so easy against Pittsburgh’s defense last week, however, so it will be interesting to track what he does against Denver’s defense as the primary playmaker for the Bengals’ offense. T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are up to the task in the Broncos’ secondary after limiting Green effectively in last year’s matchup but it won’t be easy to do so again on Sunday.
3. Slowing down Von Miller
So far Miller has looked like he’s worth every penny of that mega contract he received this offseason. He’s been terrorizing opposing offenses on just about every snap and made life miserable for two of the league’s best quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. Seeing how Cincinnati tries to block him on obvious passing downs is worth monitoring because it seems highly doubtful that the Bengals will prefer to have Miller matched up one-on-one with the team’s offensive tackles. Expect running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to be a little more involved in pass protection than the passing game as a result.
Football is a game of matchups and in this intriguing AFC clash between two of last season’s playoff teams is a juicy one. The Bengals feature one of the best offenses in the NFL, led by an aerial attack with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green that has piled up yards through two weeks and are dangerous on every snap. The Broncos meanwhile, feature the best defense in the league by a good margin and are tough to attack no matter how good a team’s personnel is.
The combination of these two factors results in a pretty compelling non-primetime game on Sunday between teams looking to capture home-field advantage at the end of the season. Cincinnati is already pressing for wins, even early in the year, after narrowly beating the Jets but falling to division rival Pittsburgh last week. Denver isn’t in the same position but does have to deal with getting everybody’s best shot as the defending champs and has an inexperienced quarterback making his first road start. While a win or a loss won’t make or break either team’s season, this game should help sort out the top of the AFC and clarify where each squad stacks up compared to the rest of the conference.
At the end of the day, this one comes down to which offense can most effectively move down the field and limit mistakes. A three-and-out is a much better alternative to a fumble or interception and you can bet that coaches on both sides will be preaching ball security in such a close matchup. Cincinnati at home gets the slight edge when it comes to the final score, but don’t be surprised if Denver is in position to win the game in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Bengals 26, Broncos 23
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.