by Kent Sterling
Four games among eight teams – none of which is favored to go to the Super Bowl. Wild Card Weekend is like the duels among gladiators to earn a spot to fight the lion, but it’s still the NFL, and for the eight teams fighting for a chance to travel to play one of the four best teams in football, it represents a chance.
Coaches earn their opportunity to crow for another week about how smart they are, and job security can be a reward of a win during this weekend that separates the good from the kind of good.
The third game of the weekend pits the Cincinnati Bengals against the Colts in Indianapolis. The Colts looked like a team that might contend for a Super Bowl berth in Week Seven when they hammered the Bengals 27-0. That domination was a bitter pill for Bengals fans, but it will have nothing to do with the result of Sunday’s early game.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis needs a win Sunday to avoid tying Jim Mora Sr.’s record for playoff losses without a win (six), and Andy Dalton has been the king of the one-and-done playoff quarterbacks going 0-3 in his three seasons.
The Colts offensive line is in injury-related shambles, as it has been for weeks, but during that time, the Colts have managed to win five or their last six. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton told the media yesterday, “Our emphasis is to just try and score every time we touch the football. If that’s running the football, that’s great. Ideally, we want to have balance in our offense but at this point, we’ve got to accentuate our strengths and do what we do best and that’s finding ways to score.”
That means throw the football. Since Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season with a broken fibula, the Colts have had limited success (that’s being kind) running the football. Trent Richardson and Boom Herron have been trusted to man the running game, but Andrew Luck has led the Colts in rushing twice, and in the Cowboys game, Herron led the Colts with three yards.
Tha Colts cannot run, and will not run. What they will do is try to use the weapons Luck has at his disposal. Dwayne Allen and T.Y. Hilton are healthy, Hakeem Nicks has been productive of late, and Reggie Wayne knows this is his last best chance to add a ring to his collection of one. Look for the Colts to come out with urgency from the opening kick and put pressure on the Bengals secondary and inability to get to the quarterback.
The pass rush of the Bengals is ranked last in the NFL by profootballfocus.com, and have only 22 sacks for the season, and that plays right into the Colts biggest weakness – protecting Luck.
A.J. Green is still working through concussion protocols and may not play. If he suits up, the Bengals offense will be far more potent than if he fails to pass tests and is forced to sit.
The running game for the Bengals is key to their offensive success. Jeremy Hill has established himself as the man in the Queen City, rushing for 100 or more yards the last three games of the season. When the offense is trusted to Andy Dalton, the roller coaster ride for the Bengals starts, and where it usually ends is with a touchdown or turnover – and they come in nearly equal measure. Dalton finished the season with 19 TDs and 17 picks.
This game, like most in the NFL, likely will come down to turnovers. The Colts gave the ball away 15 times from Week 12 through Week 16 before putting together a turnover free effort against Tennessee in the season finale.
Dalton’s playoff statistics have been terrible with passer ratings of 51.4, 44,7, and 67.0 with one TD and six picks. Whether this winds up being his fourth nightmare in four seasons is yet to be written, but does anyone want to bet against it?
if the Colts get off to a hot start, this game will get ugly. If the Bengals take nearly lead, one of two things will happen – the Bengals will win their first playoff game since January, 1991, or the stage will be set for another thrilling comeback led by Andrew Luck and an opportunistic defense.
Prediction: I see this as a surprisingly drama free walk through – Colts 38 – Bengals 20