The Cincinnati Bengals (3-4) will be looking to end a three-game losing streak when they take on the red-hot Denver Broncos (4-3) in Week 9. Both teams have their sights set on a playoff berth heading into the season's second half.
There were plenty of questions about the Bengals' ability to match their run to the postseason last season, and most of them still haven't been answered. Failing to take advantage of games against the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns could come back to haunt them, though.
The Broncos are in a much more promising position, partly due to playing in the weaker AFC West. They have survived the difficult portion of their schedule with a winning record and should soon start pulling away in the division title race.
Even though it's not receiving much national attention, this should be one of the week's best games. With that in mind, here's a look at the viewing information for Sunday's clash followed by a complete preview.
Which team will win the AFC battle?
Where: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio
When: Sunday, Nov. 4 at 1 p.m. ET
Listen: KOA 850 AM (Denver) or WCKY 1530 AM (Cincinnati)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Betting Line: Broncos -3.5 (Vegas Insider)
Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
Broncos: Joe Mays (out, ankle) and Tracy Porter (questionable, illness).
Bengals: Dre Kirkpatrick (questionable, knee), Brian Leonard (questionable, ribs) and Armon Binns (questionable, ankle).
What's at Stake?
The AFC North once again appears poised to grab at least two postseason berths—the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers—which limits Cincinnati's margin for error. The Bengals have to get back on track or their playoff chances will vanish.
They also have an incredibly difficult finishing stretch, including games against the Steelers and Ravens over the final two weeks. So they have to make up as much ground as possible now to give themselves a chance heading into those games.
For the Broncos, it's all about building their division lead and maintaining the momentum they have built up over the past month. They have looked increasingly dangerous with each passing week as Peyton Manning has returned to form.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Demaryius Thomas
It's safe to say Thomas and Manning are on the same page after three 100-yard performances in the past four games for the talented wide receiver. The connection has allowed Thomas to reach an elite fantasy level. He's tied for seventh in average scoring.
The worst part about it for opposing defenses is that when Manning is at the top of his game, as he has been lately, he can make passes that only Thomas can catch. In fantasy terms, it limits the downside of relying on the athletic Georgia Tech product.
Cincinnati ranks in the middle of the pack against the pass and has intercepted just three passes. That should mean the Broncos passing attack is in for another big game, making Thomas a must-start fantasy option once again. Expect around 15 points.
What They're Saying
The Broncos have a good mix of promising young players and reliable veterans, and head coach John Fox says the onus is on the older guys to help their teammates develop, according to Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post.
"They're more of a proven commodity. They've done it for somebody else but they've done it in this league, in those guys' cases, at a high level. When you have the opportunity to pick a veteran guy up like that, that has leadership qualities, understands the game, can help develop those young players—that's what they call leadership."
Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer passed along thoughts from star corner Leon Hall, who knows the Bengals secondary has a tough challenge ahead on Sunday.
"I was pretty impressed. They looked pretty good," cornerback Leon Hall said. "Going from the Atlanta game until now, they're probably one of the most improved offenses if not teams in the NFL."
Broncos Key Player: Peyton Manning
Any concerns the Broncos or their fans had about Manning's ability to run an offense like he did during his days with the Indianapolis Colts have been quickly eliminated. He's still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, even after a full year on the sidelines.
Manning has thrown 17 touchdowns in seven games while averaging over 300 yards per contest. His quarterback rating of 109 leads the NFL, a pretty remarkable feat considering what he's been through. He's definitely an MVP contender, as well.
Looking ahead, the Broncos need him to keep dominating in order to become a serious threat in the title picture. Although Denver has a pretty solid team overall, it's Manning that really takes them to the next level. The Bengals will find that out the hard way.
How many times will the Bengals sack Manning?
Bengals Key Player: Geno Atkins
Atkins has made steady progress ever since the Bengals drafted him in the fourth round two years ago. Now he's of the verge of stardom. The defensive tackle has racked up seven sacks in as many games and one more will set a record for his personal best.
He's combined with defensive end Michael Johnson, who has six sacks, to give the Bengals a dynamic pass-rushing duo. They will have to find a way to hit Manning early and often if Cincinnati is going to emerge victorious this week.
It's basically impossible to stop Manning, but the best way to slow him down is getting pressure without sending extra rushers. Atkins and Johnson give the Bengals a chance to do exactly that. Their success on Sunday will directly correlate with how Cincinnati fares.
Broncos 27, Bengals 24