'MNF' Week 16: What to watch for in Bengals-Broncos


Monday Night Football has saved the best for last.

Tonight's showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos is layered with playoff intrigue for a pair of teams still competing for a first-round bye in the AFC.

The laundry list of potential postseason scenarios hinging on tonight's result are packed with more mystery than the Warren Commission. Before digging in, let's chart the various rivulets both clubs could wander down with a win in this epic Week 16 face-off:

1. Here are the scenarios for both teams:

If Cincinnati wins on MNF:
1) Bengals clinch first-round bye
2) Texans win AFC South
3) Colts are eliminated
4) Chiefs move into first place in AFC West as AFC's No. 3 seed
5) Jets move from No. 6 seed to No. 5 in AFC
6) Broncos move to No. 6 seed in AFC

If Denver wins on MNF:
1) Broncos move up to No. 2 seed in AFC
2) Bengals move down to No. 3 seed in AFC
3) Colts remain alive in AFC South race
4) Chiefs remain No. 5 seed in AFC

2. While Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton have combined to start 342 games in the NFL, neither will be on the field tonight. The spotlight falls instead on Denver's Brock Osweiler and Cincy's AJ McCarron, who have paired for just six starts in the pros. McCarron's lone start came in last week's win over the 49ers, a contest that saw the former Alabama star take shots downfield and capably run the Bengals' offense. Dalton's backup completed 71.4 percent of his throws while hitting passes of 16, 19, 20, 37 and 47 yards. Daring play-caller Hue Jackson showed plenty of trust in his second-year signal-caller, but the task grows meatier against a Broncos defense that ranks fourth in points allowed per game and No. 1 overall in total yards, rushing yards and passing yards per tilt. Also tied for first in sacks, the Broncos will pursue McCarron from wire to wire.

3. The Bengals also have the requisite talent on defense to make it a long night for Osweiler. Cincy rolls into Monday night allowing the fewest points per game and just one 100-yard rusher all year. That could spell trouble for a Denver offense that managed just 34 yards on the ground two weeks ago in a loss to Oakland. It's been a tale of two halves for the Broncos, who have been shut out in the second half in three straight games. Osweiler has fared better than Manning in completion percentage, yards per game, touchdown-to-pick ratio and passer rating, but we've seen him struggle when the offense falls on his shoulders. His 17.9 passer rating on throws of 20-plus air yards is the lowest in the NFL among 36 qualifying quarterbacks.

4. Denver is at its best when C.J. Anderson is frolicking for yardage out of the backfield. After missing Week 14 with an ankle injury, the Broncos back managed just 20 yards against the Steelers last week. With another week of rest, Anderson hopes to continue a strong late-season pace that has him running for 6.1 yards per carry since Week 8 after rushing for just 2.7 yards per attempt over the first seven games of the year. Ronnie Hillman can't do it alone against a rugged Cincy front led by Geno Atkins, a behemoth at the tackle spot who now sports 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and a whopping 19 hits on the quarterback in 2015.

5. McCarron fared well against the 49ers blitz last week, but the Broncos are a different beast. Ben Roethlisberger in Week 15 was the first quarterback this season to throw for more than 300 yards against a Denver front that fields the fourth-highest blitz percentage of any team in the league. Von Miller has piled up 10 sacks during a remarkable season while DeMarcus Ware has six takedowns of his own. This frisky pass rush has done wonders for a talented secondary that has helped the team pile up five defensive touchdowns this season, second only to Kansas City.

6. Keep an eye on the matchup between Bengals wideout A.J. Green and Denver cornerback Chris Harris. After producing a pristine season, Harris was flamed by Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown for 147 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15 after not allowing a touchdown in coverage since Week 12 of 2013.

7. This game is a rematch of last year's Week 16 showdown on MNF, which saw Bengals running back Jeremy Hill play hero with 147 yards and a touchdown off 22 carries. His sophomore effort has been something of a mystery, though, without a 100-yard game all season and just 3.4 yards per rush after blasting through teams for 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie. The Bengals could use a big outing from their powerful runner tonight.

8. If the Broncos win out, they're guaranteed a first-round bye in the playoffs, but Denver could also become the first team in NFL history to start 10-2 and miss out on the postseason if they lose their final two. If you're into late-December matchups with plenty at stake, tonight's your night.