AFC division leaders are set to face off when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. Andrew Luck and the Colts (8-4) currently hold a commanding three-game lead over the Titans in the AFC South, while Andy Dalton and the Bengals (8-4) are two games ahead of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
Even though the teams are tied at 8-4, Indianapolis currently is the third seed in the AFC playoffs due to a better winning percentage in conference games (6-2, .750) compared to Cincinnati (6-3, .666).
3 Things to Watch
Indianapolis’ First Half Struggles
Indianapolis has gone 3-2 since its Week 8 bye and one of the biggest reasons why has been the Colts’ slow starts. In their last five games, the Colts have managed a total of three field goals in the first quarter while their opponents have scored six touchdowns. That 42-9 scoring margin in the first quarter balloons to 100-24 by halftime. Prior to last week’s slim 12-7 lead at the half, Indianapolis had trailed by at least 11 points after the first 30 minutes of play in its previous four games. The Colts haven’t scored a touchdown in the first half since their Week 7 victory over Denver at home back on Oct. 20. Chuck Pagano’s team should get plenty of credit for going 3-2 during this span, despite trailing at halftime by an average of 15.2 points per game, but that’s only due to a remarkable comeback against lowly Houston in Week 9 and two wins against a Tennessee team that’s starting its backup quarterback. On the other hand, the losses to St. Louis at home and on the road against Arizona have not been pretty. The Colts were outscored 55-3 in the first half and 78-19 overall by the Rams and Cardinals. Indianapolis can ill afford another slow start this afternoon, especially on the road against a Cincinnati team that is a perfect 5-0 at Paul Brown Stadium this season.
Protecting the Quarterback
Both Indianapolis and Cincinnati rank near the bottom of the NFL in sacks allowed this season. However, both teams have had issues keeping their quarterback upright recently. The Colts currently are tied for 23rd in the league with 29 sacks allowed. Andrew Luck’s pocket presence and dual-threat capabilities certainly make his offensive line’s job easier, but this unit has struggled since the bye in Week 8. In the past five games, Luck has gone down 14 times or roughly half of his season total (29). To make matters worse, Cincinnati is ninth in the league in sacks with 36, with the defense producing three or more sacks in four of its past five outings. The Bengals have fared even better than the Colts in keeping their quarterback’s jersey clean. Andy Dalton has been sacked 26 times, which places the team 27th in the league in sacks allowed. Ten of these came in Weeks 9 and 10 when the Bengals lost to the Dolphins and Ravens in back-to-back games. In fact, Miami beat Cincinnati thanks to a sack, a rare walk-off safety courtesy of the Dolphins’ Cameron Wake. The losses to the Dolphins and Ravens are the only two the Bengals have suffered over their last eight games. On the whole, the Colts’ and Bengals’ offensive lines have done a solid job of protecting their quarterbacks. Luck and Dalton both hope this trend, and not the recent hiccups in this area, continues this afternoon.
Which Offense Gets a Passing Grade?
While neither Indianapolis nor Cincinnati will ever be mistaken for Denver, New Orleans or Detroit when it comes to passing offenses, both the Colts and Bengals have really struggled in this area recently. Since the Week 8 bye, Andrew Luck has averaged 243.8 yards passing per game. His 353-yard effort in Week 10 greatly inflates this average, and that was a game in which the Colts were forced to pass because the Rams were up 28-0 at halftime. This span of five games also coincides with the number of games leading receiver Reggie Wayne has missed. The veteran tore his ACL in the Week 7 win over Denver and without him, Luck hasn’t been as near productive when he drops back to pass. The second-year signal-caller has completed just 55.2 percent of his passes and has as many touchdowns as interceptions (five apiece) in five games without Wayne. T.Y. Hilton has stepped into Wayne’s role as the No. 1 receiver, but other than a 121-yard, three-touchdown performance against Houston, Hilton has totaled 258 yards receiving and no scores since the bye. Part of the problem has been no one has emerged behind Hilton as a reliable secondary option for Luck. Pass protection (14 sacks in the last five games), also has been an issue, but the bottom line is that Luck and the Colts must figure out a way to “fix” a passing attack that has netted a total of 319 yards in the last two games combined. On the other side is Andy Dalton, who went through a three-game stretch in October during which he averaged 344.7 yards passing per game with a total of 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Since then, however, he has averaged less than 225 yards passing and has posted a 9:6 interception-to-touchdown ratio over his past four outings. Unlike Luck, Dalton has the luxury of a premier wide receiver at his disposal in A.J. Green. The All-Pro is tied for sixth in the NFL with 1,103 yards receiving and has hauled in seven touchdowns. Green has totaled just 90 yards in his last two games, but that was preceded by a three-game stretch in which he averaged 131.3, so he’s capable of breaking out at any moment. The Colts (238.7 ypg) have been a little more generous than the Bengals (213.8 ypg) in terms of pass defense this season, but it remains to be seen if either struggling aerial attack will be able to make much of an impact this afternoon.
Indianapolis Key Player: Coby Fleener, TE
The Colts’ offense hasn’t been the same since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in the Week 7 win against Denver. T.Y. Hilton has replaced Wayne as Andrew Luck’s No. 1 target, but the second-year wide receiver can’t do it alone. The coaching staff was hoping that Darrius Heyward-Bey would step up in Wayne’s absence, but that has not materialized and the free agent acquisition is basically an afterthought in the Colts’ offensive game plans at this point. That’s where Fleener comes in. With a relationship that goes back to their days at Stanford, Luck obviously trusts Fleeer, as he’s averaged nearly eight targets per game in the five games the Colts have been without Wayne. Fleener has turned all of these looks into 22 catches for 309 yards and one touchdown. While productive, the Colts need even more out of Fleener, especially if no other wide receiver emerges behind Hilton.
Cincinnati Key Player: Giovani Bernard, RB
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is getting the most carries and may lead the Bengals in rushing (614 yards), but Bernard is the difference-maker out of the backfield. The first running back drafted in April (second round, 37th overall), the former North Carolina star has had his moments as both a rusher and receiver this season. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry, compared to Green-Ellis’ 3.5 and has the same number of rushing touchdowns (four) as the veteran. As a receiver, he’s second to All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green in receptions on the team with 43 and of Bernard’s 354 yards receiving, 346 of them have come after the catch. Bernard’s speed and explosiveness have already produced several highlight-reel plays, and his role in the offense only figures to grow in the Bengals’ final four games.
Indianapolis is a win away from clinching the AFC South, but the Colts have been the beneficiary of a lackluster division and have not been the same team since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL back in Week 7. The offense has struggled to find its rhythm and the defense hasn’t been able to figure out how to consistently stop the run.
Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat in the AFC North, thanks to Baltimore and Pittsburgh’s slow starts, but this is not a Bengals team without its own flaws either. Outside of one ridiculous three-game stretch in October, quarterback Andy Dalton has been average at best, while the defense has lost some key personnel, most notably All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, to injuries.
Since Wayne went down, the Colts have put themselves into big holes early in games, which is something they can ill afford to do on the road against Cincinnati. Quarterback Andrew Luck and his running mates have struggled against good defenses recently, as both Arizona and Tennessee have held the Colts’ offense in check over the past two weeks.
Like the Cardinals and Titans, the Bengals have a pretty good defense of their own and in the end, this will be the difference this afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati’s pass rush prevents Luck from getting comfortable in the pocket and finding his rhythm, while the Bengals’ offense uses playmakers A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard to attack a susceptible Colts’ secondary. The Bengals maintain serve at home in a game that will impact how the AFC playoffs shake out when all is said and done.
Cincinnati 27, Indianapolis 20