Why this game is intriguing: Remember when we thought Peyton Manning and theDenver Broncos would take a while to become contenders? Seems funny now. Fresh off a demolition of the Saints, the Broncos are in prime position to take control of their division. The opportunity is there against a Cincinnati Bengals team that has lost three straight. Yet, this matchup is a little odd. It's at Cincinnati, for one. And the Bengals have the third-most sacks in the NFL, with a vicious pass rush led by big Geno Atkins, who applies pressure up the middle. That doesn't bode well for Manning's comfort. However, few teams boast as stifling a combination of defensive pressure and coverage as Denver. Will Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton get enough time to find electric wideout A.J. Green?
The Denver Broncos have surged into the AFC West lead as quickly as the Cincinnati Bengals have watched their promising start disappear.
It may not be a coincidence given the rise of Peyton Manning's play and the recent struggles of Andy Dalton.
Manning has never lost the Bengals, and his Broncos seek a third straight victory while dealing host Cincinnati a fourth consecutive defeat Sunday.
Denver got off to a disappointing 1-2 start as Manning's 85.6 QB rating ranked 11th in the NFL. The future Hall of Famer has been stellar since, though, posting a league-best 127.9 passer rating while throwing 12 touchdowns to only one interception as Denver (4-3) has won three of four to take sole possession of the division lead.
Manning went 22 of 30 for 305 yards and three touchdowns in last Sunday night's 34-14 blowout of New Orleans, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 300 yards, throw three TDs and complete 70 percent of his passes in four straight games. He battled through a thumb injury to pass for at least 300 yards in a career high-tying fifth straight game after banging it on a defender's helmet in the second quarter.
"Quarterbacks, probably the biggest fear is always the thumb on the helmet of the defensive lineman," said Manning, who has won each of his seven career starts versus the Bengals while throwing 17 touchdowns to three interceptions. "It'll be sore, but I'm probably a little bit lucky."
Though luck seems to have little to do with Manning's latest surge, Dalton and the struggling Bengals (3-4) likely would welcome some coming out of their bye week.
Dalton finished 14 of 28 for 105 yards in a 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 21, tossing his sixth interception during Cincinnati's three-game skid. He's thrown at least one pick in every game this season.
"You have to play (well) at quarterback in order to win. That stands out," said coach Marvin Lewis, whose team held a 14-3 lead against the Steelers. "You have to take care of the ball on offense. You have to play efficiently at quarterback. That's the way it is when you look at the games across the league. Turnovers beat you."
Cincinnati has turned the ball over eight times during its losing streak which has wiped away a promising 3-1 start, but Lewis hopes the bye week helped the Bengals regroup.
"I thought we were very, very good at stinking up October and we need to do a cleanse," Lewis said. "We have an opportunity to fix a lot of the things that are ailing us right now, and that's what we've got to do."
Cornerback Leon Hall said the current slump may provide some motivation.
"We like that position, to be honest," Hall said. "No one gives us a chance after losing three games in a row and Denver is playing really well. You have to give it to them, but we like that position."
Cincinnati allowed 167 rushing yards versus Pittsburgh, which may not bode well against a Denver team that finished with a season-best 225 yards on the ground last week.
Willis McGahee ran for a season-high 122 yards and a touchdown for the Broncos, who had combined for 127 rushing yards over their previous two games.
"We just showed glimpses of what our offense can do when we all work together," McGahee said.
The Bengals' ground game hasn't been nearly as good, averaging 78.7 yards over the last three. They haven't had a 100-yard rusher this season, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis' 3.4 yards per carry average ranks 38th in the NFL among 49 qualifying players.
Denver held New Orleans to only 51 yards rushing as Wesley Woodyard led a strong defensive effort with a sack and strip, an interception and 13 tackles to earn the league's defensive player of the week honor.
"We've still got to continue to get better," said Woodyard, who's the first Denver defender to record 50 tackles with multiple sacks (three) and interceptions (two) before the midway point of the season. "We don't want to be satisfied with what we did (Sunday). We want to come back next week and show the same thing."
It's a similar message coach John Fox is trying to instill in his team during its surge.
"You're never as good as they say you are, you're never as bad as they say you are," Fox said. "The key to this thing is getting better each and every week. That message won't change with our group."
McGahee rushed 28 times for 101 yards and a score in last season's 24-22 win over Cincinnati, marking Denver's third straight victory in the series.