Cincinnati Bengals vs. Denver Broncos: Matchups, prediction for a game with massive playoff implications

The Cincinnati Bengals travel to Denver for a conference battle vs. the Broncos. Whoever wins this game creeps closer to the playoffs.

The Cincinnati Bengals vs. Denver Broncos game on Sunday could decide which team makes the playoffs in 2021. Each team seems to have a bright future, albeit by different means. But in an incredibly tight AFC Wild Card race, each needs a few more wins to secure a spot in the playoffs. Currently, both are 7-6 but sit ninth and 10th in the AFC playoff race. It’s just more proof this has been an insane NFL season.

Cincinnati Bengals offense vs. Denver Broncos defense

Given the offensive talent, the Bengals’ offense is surprisingly underwhelming by the numbers, depending on which advanced metrics tickle your fancy. They rank 21st in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and 20th in weighted DVOA (Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric) despite ranking 11th in offensive success rate.

Why is there such a discrepancy? Well, it’s because they allow drive-killers to creep in and negatively affect their offense. They possess a putrid sack rate (29th), and Joe Burrow maintains the same INT rate. The Bengals’ offensive self-harm could use some professional counseling.

Meanwhile, the Broncos hover around the top 10 in both INT and sack rate as a defense. They’re also the 10th-ranked unit in EPA/play allowed but rank 19th in weighted DVOA.

That’s a pretty wild difference, but it could be because they struggle to stop the run. They rank 22nd in EPA/play allowed on the ground and are 30th in success rate for the season.

Joe Burrow vs. Broncos defense

My colleagues at the Pro Football Network — Cody Roark and Adam Beasley — love themselves some Burrow, and for good reason. He’s a catalyst in an incredibly exciting offense. But he’s also part of the reason this offense stalls dramatically.

His 14 interceptions lead the NFL right now, as do his 41 sacks. Interceptions aren’t all his fault. In fact, Ja’Marr Chase practically handed one to the defense a few weeks ago. But something that’s made an excuse for Burrow is also partially on him and the offense as a whole.

Sacks are a quarterback stat. I’ll die on that hill. But before we get all huffy puffy, please note that doesn’t mean ALL sacks are on the quarterback. There’s no debating Burrow suffers from a horrific right side and center. But his aggressiveness and desire to push the ball forces him to hold it longer.

A fun offseason project would be to chart every single sack to see whether they are QB, coverage, or offensive line sacks. To summarize, Burrow has the talent to dissect defenses, but he also gives back by charitable donation. And the Broncos certainly don’t lack talent on the back end.

Advantage: Push

Bengals skill-position players vs. Broncos secondary

This is the main attraction. We all want to see the rematch of Chase vs. Patrick Surtain II. I’m sure Surtain wants the same thing because the last time he saw Chase was during LSU’s magical run toward the National Championship, where Chase caught 6 passes for 141 yards and 1 TD. Most of that damage came against Trevon Diggs, but I’m sure Surtain wants revenge for the loss.

But Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are no slouches. However, neither are the likes of Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby, and Caden Sterns. I’d love to add Kyle Fuller into that mix, but he’s struggled in his reunion with Vic Fangio.

It’s going to be a slugfest on the outside, and it’ll be fascinating to see who comes out on top of their individual matchups. But the receivers aren’t everything, either. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine both contribute out of the backfield, and C.J. Uzomah has been productive at tight end. Meanwhile, Baron Browning has looked good as a rookie, but the Broncos are still playing third and fourth-string LBs, and that’s only if Kenny Young can return from a concussion.

Advantage: Bengals

Bengals offensive line vs. Broncos defensive front

This is where things tumble down a hill of despair, with the only reprieve being that Dre’Mont Jones might not be able to go in this game. Unfortunately, even the reserves will probably succeed against Cincinnati’s center and right guard.

Trey Hopkins and Hakeem Adeniji are liabilities, and the Bengals absolutely must strengthen their offensive interior before 2022 or risk harming Burrow to a point where repairing his confidence could take seasons.

Advantage: Broncos

Denver Broncos offense vs. Cincinnati Bengals defense

In no world could you have convinced me that the Broncos’ offense would be more efficient than the Bengals’ unit heading into the 2021 season, but here we are. You also couldn’t tell me the Bengals’ defense would be a top-10 unit in 2021. But again, here we are.

Denver’s offense is buoyed by balance. They have high rankings in passing and rushing EPA, and DVOA ranks them 11th in passing and eighth in rushing. The Broncos have a two-headed monster at running back and three receivers that will be mainstays of the offense for years to come.

Conversely, Cincy’s front office somehow struck gold in free agency and turned the fortunes of their defense around with a few risky yet rewarding signings. Chidobe Awuzie is playing the best football of his career. Mike Hilton is a good slot defender, and Trey Hendrickson has taken to a full-time role better than I could have ever imagined.

Teddy Bridgewater vs. Bengals defense

Bridgewater is the quintessential bus-driving quarterback. He’s good enough to win with. You probably won’t lose many games because of him, but you also won’t win many because of him.

The Broncos have the skill-position players to help carry Bridgewater to offensive success, and he has the veteran presence that prevents a lackluster offensive line from destroying drives. It helps that he’s one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the NFL.

Cincinnati’s defense is good at getting to opposing quarterbacks. They’re eighth in the league in sack rate and tied for second in overall sacks. They accomplish that despite blitzing less than all but five NFL teams.

Advantage: Bengals

Broncos skill-position players vs. Bengals secondary

Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, and Courtland Sutton are quite a trio of receivers for the Broncos. But their talent goes so far beyond that it’s sickening. Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam are great weapons at tight end, and both Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams naturally catch passes out of the backfield.

The Bengals have one of the most talented safeties in the NFL in Jessie Bates III, and Vonn Bell has played lights out this year. Awuzie also has, and Hilton is one of the more consistent slot cornerbacks in the league. However, the loss of Logan Wilson hurts their ability to defend tight ends and backs, and Eli Apple could be picked on by any of the Broncos’ three receivers.

Advantage: Broncos

Broncos offensive line vs. Bengals defensive front

This matchup is one of the more surprisingly interesting ones in this game. Garett Bolles hasn’t played as he did in 2020, but he’s having a solid season. I think this matchup (and possibly the game) comes down to how the Broncos’ interior holds up against B.J. Hill, D.J. Reader, and Larry Ogunjobi.

Quinn Meinerz has stepped into the starting RG spot beautifully, but Lloyd Cushenberry will have his hands full against Reader, who will undoubtedly overpower the center. If the offensive interior can survive, the Broncos have a good shot of outlasting the Bengals.

Advantage: Bengals

Betting lines and score prediction

  • Spread: Broncos -2.5
  • Moneyline: Broncos -150, Bengals +130
  • Total: 44.5

So, the implied finishing score for this game is 23.5-21, with Denver winning. That’s a bit peculiar because the weather appears to be outstanding for the game, with a high of nearly 60 degrees on Sunday. Winds don’t seem to be a factor either.

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I think both offenses play well, and they hit the over, but I’m not too fond of the 2.5-point spread. If anything, I’d take the Bengals moneyline based on the value, although this game could really go either way.

Bengals vs. Broncos Prediction: Bengals 27, Broncos 26

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