Bengals vs. Broncos could come down to defense
DENVER — They're not wearing throwback uniforms Monday night. The Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos could certainly turn back the clock on all these aerial fireworks that are lighting up scoreboards across the NFL these days.
It's not just that the game pits backup quarterbacks AJ McCarron, making his second NFL start, and Brock Osweiler, making his sixth, and not Andy Dalton and Peyton Manning. It matches two of the NFL's stingiest defenses.
The Broncos (10-4) are No. 1 in the league against the run and the pass. They have a chance to become the first team since the 1970 merger to lead the league in total defense, scoring defense, sacks, and pass defense.
They hadn't allowed a 30-point game or a 300-yard passer until their meltdown at Pittsburgh last week when they blew a two-touchdown halftime lead in a 34-27 loss that puts them in a precarious playoff position with a chance to earn a first-round bye or miss the postseason altogether.
"Last week we fell off a little bit as a defense," Broncos rookie linebacker Shane Ray said. "But we're still the best defense in the league."
The Bengals (11-3) aren't bad either. They've surrendered the fewest points in the NFL.
"That's one of the most exciting things, to me, is going up against another top-tier defense in this atmosphere and in this league," Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "For me to sit here and say we don't pay attention to that, that's a lie. We do. We want to go out and outperform that unit."
No team has had the Broncos' rare balance since the Philadelphia Eagles led the league in run defense and pass defense in 1991. The Bengals give up more yards but they've allowed just 243 points, 16 fewer than Denver. And they've held six of their past nine opponents to 14 points or fewer.
The Bengals entered Week 16 as the only team in the NFL with two players with double-digit sack totals — Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins — and safety Reggie Nelson's league-leading eight interceptions were double his previous career best.
Here are some other points of interest for the showdown that could be decided by which defense dominates:
ROAD KILL: In addition to wrapping up an AFC North title Sunday with the Steelers' loss at Baltimore, the Bengals have a chance to secure a playoff bye and get another notable breakthrough in Denver.
A victory would leave them 7-1 on the road this season, the best mark in the team's 48-year history. It also would end a long streak — Cincinnati hasn't won a Monday night game on the road since 1990.
"It's a playoff game," Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones said.
Whether it's the regular season or the playoffs, the Bengals have rarely done much on the road, where they're 0-13 in the playoffs and 3-16 on Monday nights.
JEKYLL & HYDE: The Broncos have had trouble after halftime. They haven't scored a single point in the third quarter since Nov. 8 at Indianapolis. And they've blown back-to-back double-digit halftime leads by getting shut out in the second half against Oakland and Pittsburgh.
"It's tough right now. Obviously, we're scratching our heads as coaches. We have to figure that out," coach Gary Kubiak said. "(Sunday) the first half was as good of a half of football I've ever been around, offensively. ... Our execution in the second half was poor. It was penalty filled. We dropped snaps, we dropped balls. You name it, we did it.
"We have to play a lot better coming out of the locker room."
BATTLE OF BACKUPS: For once, Osweiler will be the most experienced quarterback on the field.
McCarron won his first NFL start last week, 24-14 at San Francisco. Osweiler is 3-2 since taking over for an injured Manning in mid-November after the five-time MVP tore the plantar fascia in his left foot.
Osweiler is dealing with some health issues himself. He injured his left (non-throwing) shoulder on a scramble at Pittsburgh last week and awoke Tuesday with a left eye infection.
He said his vision was OK: "It's good enough to find the open receiver."
RUN IT: Bengals running back Jeremy Hill was benched for the first quarter at San Francisco for unspecified reasons. He got into the game in the second quarter and carried 19 times for only 31 yards, his latest disappointing showing.
Hill has yet to run for 100 yards in a game this season — Giovani Bernard has one such game. The Bengals rank 15th in the league in rushing and need to do better in Denver to take some of the pressure off McCarron.
SAFETY VALVE: Starting safeties T.J. Ward (ankle) and Darian Stewart (hamstring) are expected back in the lineup for Denver, which won't have to deal with Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert.
Eifert, who has a dozen TD catches, is out with a concussion.
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay contributed.
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