This is a tale of two teams heading in different directions. Since the Broncos were dissected by the New England Patriots 31-21 in Week 5, the Broncos have won two straight key games over the likes of the San Diego Chargers and the New Orleans Saints.
The Bengals, on the other hand, have lost three straight games and are losing ground in a tight race for the AFC North division title. The Bengals are coming off of a bye week, after having lost to the Miami Dolphins, and two key division games against the likes of Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Both teams are jockeying for playoff spots. The Broncos have become a trendy pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in recent weeks. What must the Broncos do in order to keep their momentum and winning streak alive?
Here are 10 keys to the game for the Denver Broncos entering their Week 9 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
As well as Willis McGahee has been running the football through the first seven games of the season, his one issue has been the fumbles.
It's not only been an issue for McGahee, but it's been an issue for the entire team. The Broncos are in the bottom third of the league for fumbles with 11 total through seven games on the season. Whether it's been McGahee fumbling at key moments, Demaryius Thomas fumbling because of himself or Peyton Manning fumbling from sacks, the Broncos need to cut down on the fumbles in order to maintain their momentum in games.
Peyton Manning has been on a passing clinic over the last several weeks. Manning has only thrown one interception since throwing three interceptions at Atlanta in Week 2.
What does that mean?
It means that Manning has thrown just one interception in his six other games this season.
Who says that Manning isn't the same quarterback?
Peyton had no problem passing the ball versus the woeful Saints defense last Sunday night. The Bengals rank 25th in scoring defense as they are giving up 26.7 points per game.
There is no reason why Peyton should have a problem throwing the football against a below-average defense in the Bengals.
A.J. Green has caught a touchdown pass in six straight games. He is one of the better receivers in the NFL, and he leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns with seven.
However, the Bengals rely heavily upon Green's talents. Quarterback Andy Dalton looks heavily toward Green through the passing game. The Bengals don't have many other targets outside of Green.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a formidable receiving threat, but outside of the hashmarks, the receiving corps isn't that much of a threat. Andrew Hawkins, who at 5'7" is the Bengals' second-best wide receiver is a skillful threat at the slot, and Armon Binns round out the receiving corps.
The Steelers keyed on A.J. Green in the Bengals' last game, and despite giving up a receiving touchdown to Green, Pittsburgh harassed both Green and Dalton all day in slowing down the Bengals' passing attack.
The Broncos would be wise to follow the game plan that the Steelers instituted in Week 7 vs. the Bengals.
At this stage of the season, the Broncos are simply a better team than the Bengals.
There is only a one-game difference in the standings, but the Broncos are getting better and the Bengals are getting worse.
Cincinnati was a team that overachieved last year in part due to great coaching by Marvin Lewis, turnover-free football by rookie Andy Dalton and the rest of the team and a solid defense that wasn't great but stood their ground.
Their formula has not continued this season as the defense ranks near the bottom of the league, and the Bengals rank 27th in the league in turnover/giveaway differential.
As long as the Broncos don't give away the game, they shouldn't have a problem on Sunday.
Here is the thing about the Bengals—they have a solid young quarterback. The problem is they are relying too heavily upon him before he is ready to do so. To make matters worse, they simply don't have the talent on offense to be the type of team that can win the ball by throwing the football.
They didn't make much of an effort to re-sign Cedric Benson, and for good reason, considering for the past two or three seasons he wasn't running the ball very efficiently anyway.
However, they replaced him with a guy who isn't much better in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ellis is a solid runner in a two-back field who can hold onto the football. Problem is, he's had a bit of an issue with carrying the football in 2012, and he was never built to be a full-time feature back like he has been with the Bengals thus far.
Cincinnati ranks 22nd in rushing with Green-Ellis leading the way, and although the Bengals are sixth in the league passing touchdowns, they're also one of the leading teams in interceptions thrown, with Dalton having thrown 10 on the season through seven games. That's the fourth most in the league as a team.
Force Dalton to throw and take away the Bengals from a balanced attack and you should be able to win the game.
The Broncos have one of the better receiving corps in the NFL with perhaps the best QB in the NFL.
Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Brandon Stokely, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen.
Manning has done as well of a job as a quarterback can possibly do with his weapons through the first seven games of the season. The Bengals have a middle-of-the pack pass defense ranking 16th in the NFL in that department. They rank just 27th in interceptions forced.
Pass the ball down the Bengals' throats. It's as simple as that.
You see how well the passing game operates when the running game keeps up with it?
McGahee had 23 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown while Manning had over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns on a 22-of-30 clip as the Broncos easily cruised to a 31-14 win over the Saints last week.
If the Broncos establish the running game early with McGahee, it should be all smooth sailing from there with Manning and Co.
One thing that the Bengals defense does really well is sack the quarterback. And they do it pretty well too.
The Bengals rank third in the NFL with 23 sacks and second in sack percentage, sacking the quarterback 9.1 percent when attempting to pass.
Michael Johnson leads the team with seven sacks while Geno Atkins has six. The Bengals pressure the quarterback a lot with their front four, as starters Carlos Dunlap and Johnson are both 6'6" or taller.
When Manning has been pressured this season he has struggled. A huge key to the game will be whether or not the Broncos offensive line can protect Manning from pressure.
Last Sunday night during the game versus the Saints, NBC showed a graphic of the Broncos' remaining nine games. It showed that the Broncos have the easiest schedule in the NFL, with their opponents having a collective winning percentage of just .343.
Having entered the season with the second-toughest schedule in the league and having gone through a gauntlet schedule facing the likes of the Steelers, Falcons, Texans, Patriots, Chargers and Saints all in the first seven games of the season, the Broncos shouldn't fear anyone by now.
Especially the Bengals.
The Broncos are getting better, and the Bengals are getting worse.
As has been the theme throughout this slideshow, the Broncos should not play down to their competition. They have already gone through the toughest part of their schedule and now have a much easier path as they enter the second half of the season.
The Broncos should get out to a quick lead through a combination of McGahee four-yard runs and Manning short-yardage throws.
If the Broncos play an aggressive, yet simple offense of gaining bits and pieces of yardage through clock-eating drives, Denver should jump out to an early lead over Cincinnati.
And of course, win the game.