Wild Card preview: Bengals-Colts

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The backstory

Both teams are barely recognizable since the Bengals' 27-0 drubbing at the hands of the Colts in Week 7.

With Ahmad Bradshaw out for the season, Reggie Wayne struggling through a litany of injuries and the blocking growing increasingly suspect, the Colts' offense has gone in the tank. After topping 400 yards in eight of the first nine games as the NFL's No. 1 offense, Pep Hamilton's outfit has managed that feat just once in the last seven weeks. Andrew Luck does have reason for optimism, though, with No. 1 receiver T.Y. Hilton and top red-zone threat Dwayne Allen returning healthy for the postseason.

After struggling to find an identity during a three-game winless streak leading up to midseason, the Bengals turned their offense over to rookie running back Jeremy Hill. Although consistency remains elusive for Andy Dalton as well as Paul Guenther's defense, Hill is the NFL's leading rusher since taking control of the backfield in Week 9.

Football Outsiders ranks the Colts 12th and the Bengals 13th in their year-end metrics. FiveThirtyEight's analytics have the Bengals as the AFC's weakest playoff team, with the Colts just one spot higher.

The Colts have been bullied by superior opponents this season, but the Bengals don't qualify for that category. This is an even matchup, with neither team at peak strength entering January.

Under pressure

Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, Bengals: Cincinnati's playoff woes are no secret. Plagued by poor in-game management, questionable game plans and an uninspired team in five postseason appearances, Lewis (0-5) is behind only Jim Mora Sr. (0-6) for worst coaching record in playoff history. The Bengals have a turnover differential of -11 and have yet to score more than 17 points in a playoff game under Lewis -- which brings us to Dalton.

The word "pressure" applies to Dalton more than any NFL player. His biggest weakness as a quarterback is that he can't reliably handle pass pressure. That problem is exacerbated under the pressure of the bright lights, as Dalton's otherwise respectable numbers plummet to a 56.5 completion rate, 12:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 66.2 passer rating with a troubling 3-10 record in primetime and playoff games. His 1:6 postseason touchdown-to-interception ratio is the lowest by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

Just how much pressure is there to win in the Queen City, though? Owner Mike Brown has ceded more control of the organization to a committee, of which Lewis is a prominent member. Even if Lewis ties Mora's record of January futility, his 100-95-2 overall record dwarfs the combined 55-149 (.270) mark for all other Bengals coaches under Brown. Job security isn't a major issue for Lewis. The same holds true for Dalton, who inked a lucrative long-term deal in August.

Matchup to watch:

Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard versus Colts' front seven:

The difference this year is that the Bengals are no longer overly reliant upon the Dalton-to- A.J. Green connection that has gone 13 of 32 (40.6) for 161 yards and a 0:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in three previous postseason appearances. Green won't suit up against the Colts due to a concussion.

The onus is on Hill and Bernard, Cincinnati's most dynamic backfield duo since the thunder-and-lightning attack of Ickey Woods and James Brooks set the tone for the 1988 Super Bowl squad. Like Woods, Hill is a between-the-tackles hammer with quick feet and breakaway speed. Like Brooks, Bernard works best in open formations, beating linebackers to the edge and making defensive backs miss after the catch. Hill has joined Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Curtis Martin as the only rookies in NFL history with at least 140 rushing yards in four games.

When these teams met in Week 7, Hill carried the ball just four times for 15 yards. He will be the offensive focal point against an Indianapolis run defense that has stiffened since making Jonas Gray a household name in mid-November.

Mind-blowing stats:

The Bengals have not won a playoff game since January of 1991. That 23-year streak is the longest active streak and the longest postseason drought since the 1967-99 New Orleans Saints went 33 years. ... If they lose on Sunday, they will become the first team to lose their opening playoff game in four consecutive seasons. ... Founded in 1968, the franchise is 0-6 on the road in the playoffs. ... Cincinnati has generated the fewest sacks (20.0) in the league this season. On the flip side, they have allowed the third-fewest (23.0). ... The Bengals are 7-1 this season when Dalton throws 28 or fewer passes. They are 3-4-1 when Dalton throws at least 29 passes. ... Second receiver Mohamed Sanu leads the NFL with 14 drops this season. He has fewer than 30 receiving yards in seven of the past eight games after topping 30 yards in each of the first eight. ... Kicker Mike Nugent has yet to connect over 50 yards on three attempts this year.

The Colts are averaging 19.0 points in their last four games after averaging 31.8 in their first 12 games. ... Andrew Luck leads the NFL with 43 touchdowns and 42 passes of at least 25 yards. The Colts' 85 plays of at least 20 yards also lead the NFL. ... Luck's 12,957 passing yards are the most in history through three seasons. He has the third-most game-winning drives in the league over that span. ... The rushing attack has averaged just 100.8 yards, fewest among AFC playoff teams. Indianapolis is 0-4 when rushing for 63 or fewer yards and 11-1 when rushing for 64 yards or more. ... Trent Richardson has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in four career games versus the Bengals, compared to 3.18 versus the rest of the league. ... The only player with more receiving yards than T.Y. Hilton (393) through three career playoff games is Larry Fitzgerald (419). ... Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are the first pair of tight ends with eight touchdowns apiece in NFL history. ... Chuck Pagano's defense is 11-0 when they allow fewer than 30 points. They are 0-5 when they allow more than 30 points. ... Adam Vinatieri has missed just one kick all season.

Prediction:

Indianapolis hasn't played well in December, but this is a different team with a healthy Hilton and Allen on the field. We have seen Luck put his teammates on his back and carry them to victory over and over again since entering the league in 2012. Lewis' squad is certainly talented enough to register an upset. If this game comes down to the wire, though, the Colts have a demonstrated edge at quarterback and in game management.

Indianapolis Colts 24, Cincinnati Bengals 20

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews this weekend's four Wild-Card matchups and predicts who will advance. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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