The Denver Broncos are officially in the race for the AFC’s final wildcard spot. Standing in their way this week? The nosediving Bengals.
Cinncinati opened their season strong at 4-1, including impressive wins over the Falcons, Ravens, Colts, and Dolphins. Since though, the Bengals have been one of the worst teams in football. Losing five of their last six games, their lone win a three-point home victory over the fledgling Bucs.
Now, with their playoff hopes slipping away, will veteran coach Marvin Lewis be able to right the ship against a hot Denver squad?
The Bengals are riddled with injuries but a few strong points remain. One of which is their receiving core.
Despite their lack of publicity, Cinncinati’s receiving core is one of the best and most well-rounded units in the league. A.J. Green has been one of the best wide receivers since joining the league in 2011. Green sets himself apart with a deadly combination of size, speed, and route running that will make him a bear for anyone to cover.
In a 2016 Player’s Tribune article Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. wrote, “[Green] put up 1,000 yards every season despite getting double-teamed since he was a rookie. Everybody knows he’s getting the ball, but he’s still productive. That’s the mark of an elite receiver.”
I couldn’t say it better myself, but beyond Green, the Bengals still have a stable full of playmakers. Tyler Boyd is one of the most under-rated receivers in the league. Through 11 games this season, Boyd has led the Bengals in receiving seven times. Over the past four games, the third-year product out of Pitt has averaged six receptions for 90 yards and half a touchdown on his way to an 85.1 grade, 2nd best on Cincy’s offense behind only Green, according to Pro Football Focus.
Finally, the Bengals have John Ross. Ross is the fastest man in the league and could give the Broncos’ secondary headaches on Sunday. Ross, infamous for holding the record for fastest 40 time in NFL history (4.22). That speed makes Ross a constant threat over the top as evidenced by his 16.56 yards per reception.
That talented core gives another one of the Bengals’ strengths, their running game, a spread out defenses with plenty of running lanes. Running back Joe Mixon was seen by many as the most talented back in the 2017 NFL Draft and has quickly separated himself from Giovanni Bernard as the best back in the Bengals’ backfield. Mixon’s play this year has earned him one of the top ten overall grades among running backs in their first three seasons.
Even with a backup quarterback, the Broncos will have their work cut out for them when it comes to stopping the Bengals’ high-octane offense.
Although the Bengals are talented, the team has two glaring weaknesses that are likely to drop them from playoff contention.
Their quarterback situation and their defense.
During the Browns’ 35-20 drubbing of the Bengals, Cincy starting quarterback Andy Dalton was sidelined with an injured thumb and this week was placed on IR meaning Jeff Driskel will be the Bengals’ starter for the rest of the season. Driskel has yet to make an NFL start and his small sample size against the Browns wasn’t good. Driskel went 17/29 for a measly 155 yards to just get him over 5 yards an attempt.
Sure, those numbers aren’t bad but they hide the true story of Driskel’s play and the Bengals’ gameplan with him in the lineup. Cincinnati will be forced to gameplan around Driskel’s arm strength, meaning more dump-offs and quick plays around the line of scrimmage, further limiting an offense that already ranked 21st according to Pro Football Focus. Though the Bengals’ true Achilles heel finds itself on the other side of the ball.
The Bengals defense is the worst in the league and among the worst in recent memory. The Bengals are allowing a league-worst 31.5 points per game. The Bengals have allowed teams to score fewer than 30 points as many times as they’ve allowed teams to score more than 40.
Things get even worse when you take a look at their analytics. After grading above a 70 on defense every week for the first five weeks of the season, they’ve been graded over 70 just once since. Also, the Bengals have had their pass coverage graded under 50 an astonishing four times this season, and have been graded under 60 two other times. Using a high school grading scale, their pass coverage has failed more times than it has passed.
If there ever was a game for Keenum and the Broncos to join the new-age NFL, this would be the one.