NFL Playoff Preview - Cincinnati (10-5-1) at Indianapolis (11-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's been nearly a quarter century since the Cincinnati Bengals last won a playoff game and they will be back for a fourth straight year to try again, this time in Indianapolis on Sunday.
The legendary comedian W.C. Fields once said "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," before deadpanning: "Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."
Whether they admit it or not Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and his quarterback Andy Dalton have probably thought about that.
Lewis has been the head man in Cincinnati since the 2003 season and has won 100 career games but he's 0-5 in the postseason, losing to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season, as well as the New York Jets ('09), Houston Texans ('11 and '12) and San Diego ('13). Dalton has been there for the last three of those setbacks since taking over the team in '11 as a second-round pick out of TCU.
The franchise itself hasn't won in January since 1991.
"We have to wait until Sunday to answer it again," Lewis said of the criticism surrounding him and his team.
"Regardless of what's gone on in the past, this is a new team," Dalton added. "We're here again. We were able to earn our way back here. We've got to take advantage of that. We understand that."
A glass-is-half-full person might point to the fact that this is a franchise- record fourth straight postseason appearance for the Bengals while a glass-is- half-empty type wants results when they get there.
And those results will need to come against an emerging superstar in Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Bengals finished the regular season at 10-5-1, winning five of their last seven games but they came up short in the winner-take-all battle for the AFC North in Pittsburgh last Sunday night when Antonio Brown scored two touchdowns -- one on a punt return and one the conventional way -- as the Steelers captured their first division crown since 2010 with a 27-17 victory over Cincinnati.
Dalton completed 27-of-38 passes for 244 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the setback. Jeremy Hill carried the ball 23 times for 100 yards.
On the other side winning AFC South titles has been a way of life for the Colts over the last decade plus as Indianapolis has taken nine of the past 12 division crowns and will now be looking to build a deep playoff run off of that.
"It's one-and-done now," said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. "We all know the stakes get higher and it's single elimination. Whatever we have to do to win a game, that's what we're going to do. We're going to do whatever it takes."
Indianapolis warmed up for this in Week 17 when Luck threw a pair of touchdown passes in only one half of action, leading the Colts to a 27-10 win over the moribund Tennessee Titans.
Luck finished 10-of-16 for 160 yards and set the franchise single-season passing yardage mark with 4,761 yards, surpassing Peyton Manning's previous mark of 4,700 in 2010. Matt Hasselbeck also threw a touchdown pass in the second half for the Colts, who finished 11-5.
Indianapolis bounced back from a dreadful performance at Dallas in Week 16 and completed a sweep of the AFC South for a second straight year. The Colts, who managed only 229 yards against the Cowboys in a 42-7 loss, totaled 378 on Sunday en route to their 13th straight divisional win.
"We needed to come out and win," said Luck. "To get a victory after last week was huge."
Indianapolis leads its all-time series with the Bengals by a 17-10 margin and won the only prior postseason matchup. a 17-0 whitewash in a divisional playoff back in 1970.
Back in Week 7, Luck, who led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes this season, threw two scores as the Colts handed Cincinnati its worst loss of the year, a 27-0 shutout, the Bengals' first in five years.
Indy limited Cincinnati to 135 total yards in that one and sacked Dalton three times while forcing Kevin Huber to punt it a franchise record-tying 11 times.
"Man, there were a lot of problems," Bengals safety Reggie Nelson admitted when talking about that game. "We got beat and they got the best of us, so it's always good going back to a stadium, back to the scene of the crime."
In the postseason the Colts are 20-22 all-time while the Bengals are only 5-12.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The offenses here are polar opposites with the Colts having nary a running game while placing everything on the shoulders of Luck, and Cincinnati becoming more of a run-based, play-action club with the emergence of Hill, who led all NFL rookies in rushing yards (1,124) and rushing TDs (nine).
In his past nine games, Hill has been dominant at times, averaging 103.2 yards on the ground per contest and becoming just the third NFL rookie with four 140-plus yard games.
Hill's presence forces the opposing linebackers to honor the run fake and that creates better throwing lanes for Dalton, who, despite all the criticism, is 40-23-1 as the Bengals' starter, the highest winning percentage in franchise history.
"Winning in general is how quarterbacks are judged," Dalton said. "If you win a lot in the regular season but you haven't won a lot in the postseason, then they're going to say that you couldn't do something."
Dalton will be without his favorite target. Wide receiver A.J. Green suffered a concussion last week at Pittsburgh and has been ruled out. Green's running mate, Mohamed Sanu recorded career-highs in catches (56), receiving yards (790) and TD catches (five) but struggles with drops at times.
The Colts defense, meanwhile, has lacked consistency, especially on the pass rush where they the club has missed Robert Mathis, who sat the entire season, first on a suspension and then with an Achilles' injury.
Veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is the leader of the group in his first season since coming over from Cleveland, pacing the AFC with 140 total tackles. Jackson has rubbed well on rookie LB Jonathan Newsome, who comes in off a two-sack game last week.
The defensive backfield is highlighted by Vontae Davis, one of football's best man-to-man coverage corners as well as veteran safety Mike Adams, who led the team with a career-high five INTs this season.
The Indy offense remains the team's strength, though, and finished third in the NFL with 406.6 ypg but was No. 1 overall in passing with 305.9 of those yards coming through the air thanks to Luck, who is just the eighth QB in NFL history to toss 40 TD in a season. The Stanford product has 12,957 passing yards since entering the league in 2012, the most of any player in their first three seasons.
Luck has got a plethora of weapons starting with the speedy T.Y. Hilton, who amassed a career-high 1,345 receiving yards with 1,159 of them coming after the first month. Meanwhile tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener each had eight TD receptions.
"Suppressing Andrew Luck is going to be kind of hard," Nelson admitted. "He always starts off kind of slow and the scary thing is, he can always get his team going."
What Luck doesn't have, though, is a running game although the disappointing Trent Richardson has always played pretty well against the Bengals, averaging 101.3 scrimmage yards per game in four career meeting against Cincinnati.
Defensively the Bengals will need a big day from their top pass rusher, Carlos Dunlap, who lead the team with eight sacks. Luck will also take chances at times so when the opportunities are there to make a play, a talented defensive backfield has to pounce. Nelson led Cincinnati with four picks.
"We have a lot of respect for what they do," Luck said. "They do a lot and they do it well. These guys do everything and do it with confidence and competence. It's a fun team to play."
Geico Insurance has introduced a new generation of NFL fans to Ickey Woods and his famed "Ickey Shuffle" with a cute little marketing campaign showing Ickey celebrating getting some cold cuts with the shuffle.
Fans in Cincinnati, however, understand the Bengals haven't won in the postseason since Boomer Esiason was handing it to Ickey. In their minds it's time to celebrate something far more important than cold cuts.
"At the end of the day, there are only so many teams that get this opportunity," said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "It doesn't matter what your record is anymore. It doesn't matter where you're seeded. All that matters is if you win."
And winning here is going to take some "Luck."
"Do we want to take the next step? Yes," Pagano said. "Do we want to reach the Super Bowl that's going to be played in Arizona? Yes. We're glad to be in (the playoffs), but (we're) never satisfied until we hoist (the Lombardi Trophy)."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 28, Bengals 23
01/04 10:17:39 ET