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What to watch for in Broncos-Bengals 'MNF' tilt

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The final Monday Night Football tilt of the year features a pair of teams with plenty to play for as they battle for postseason position.

The Denver Broncos can clinch a first-round bye in the AFC with a win or a tie tonight against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati earns a playoff berth if they can topple Peyton Manning in their final home game of the season.

"We control our destiny," Bengals safety George Iloka said last week, per ESPN.com. "So it doesn't really matter as of right now what another team does."

He's right. With tonight's Broncos encounter serving as the preamble for Week 17's Sunday Night Football showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's time for the Bengals to show the world they can handle their business in prime time.

Here's what we're watching for on Monday night:

1. Will Denver stick to the ground-and-pound philosophy they've embraced of late? After three straight games with more rush attempts than Peyton Manning passes, we asked on the podcast if the Broncos are playing around their quarterback's less-than-titanic arm. Over that three-game stretch, Manning's 60.8 completion percentage is a far cry from the 68.1 mark he posted over his first 11 starts of the year. His yards per game have also dipped from 323.5 to 195.0, while Manning's passer rating has shrunk from 109.5 through Week 11 to just 88.0 over the past three weeks.

2. C.J. Anderson has plenty to do with Denver's newfound balance. Since becoming the starter in Week 11, the Broncos runner is averaging 23.6 carries and 101.4 yards per tilt. Anderson's 812 yards from scrimmage over the past six games are second only to Le'Veon Bell. After averaging 89.9 yards per game over their first 10 outings, Denver -- powered by Anderson -- is lashing teams for 164.8 yards on the ground.

3. The Bengals don't want to force Andy Dalton into a shootout. Nothing would make them happier than unleashing rookie runner Jeremy Hill, who punished the Browns last week for 148 yards and two touchdowns off 25 carries. "He's a work in progress, let's just say in every way, but he's got great physical tools and abilities," said coach Marvin Lewis. No rookie runner has impressed us more: Labeled as a hammer-dropping inside power back, Hill has shown surprising cutting ability and speed to the edge. He'll be challenged, though, against Denver's second-ranked run unit.

4. Milestone alert: Bengals wideout A.J. Green is 41 yards shy of his fourth straight 1,000-yard campaign in as many NFL seasons. If Dalton is tasked with taking shots downfield, we'll watch to see how Green fares against Denver's ninth-ranked passing D. Green has been streaky over the past three weeks with outputs of 57 and 49 yards wrapped around his 224-yard explosion against the Steelers. We'd also love to see the Bengals get Mohamed Sanu more involved. After looking like a No. 1 wideout during Green's midseason injury woes, Sanu has fallen off a cliff to average just 21.7 yards per game since Week 10.

5. Manning "looked good in practice" this week despite battling a thigh injury. We don't expect the setback to have any effect on the quarterback, but if the Broncos are challenged to score points -- Emmanuel Sanders also missed practice time with the flu -- the difference in this game might be Denver's pass rush. With 23 combined sacks, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have wrecked game plans all season. Denver's defense can take over games.

6. The Bengals' defense, meanwhile, is heating up. Take away their 42-21 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 15, Cincinnati has allowed 10, 13, 13 and zero points over the past five weeks. The Bengals have been especially stingy on the ground, giving up 75 or fewer yards in four of five outings.

7. While the Broncos have thrived under the spotlight with Manning, Dalton is weighed down by his 2-6 record on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights. "I have no idea," said defensive end Wallace Gilberry. "I guess we're afraid of the dark."

It's time to grow up.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Week 16 game and breaks down the playoff picture. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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