More than just bragging rights and a chance to clinch the division are at stake when the Indianapolis Colts travel to Cincinnati this Sunday.
The Colts and Bengals are engaged in a battle for the No.3 seed in the playoffs and a spot against, theoretically, the lesser wildcard opponent.
The Bengals are 5-0 at home this season, so it's going to be a tall task for the Colts. Here are five keys to an upset win for the Colts:
Avoid giving up big plays
The Bengals offense has its share of playmakers, including wide receiver A.J. Green, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and an assortment of other weapons around quarterback Andy Dalton. They have a diverse playbook – wide receiver Marvin Jones busted out 34 yards on an end-around earlier this season. The Colts cannot afford to let Dalton and Green (seven touchdowns) hook up for momentum-swinging completions. The Colts secondary stepped up a notch last week against Tennessee, but Cincinnati has a higher-grade offense.
Find and use new targets
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has a limited number of playmakers after all the injuries to the Colts offense this season. He can really count on only wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (who is being smothered by coverage) and tight end Coby Fleener. It's essential the Colts get some production in the passing game from someone else if they hope to beat the Bengals. The most likely candidate is LaVon Brazill, who has quietly assimilated into the offense. Perhaps Luck takes another shot or two deep with Da'Rick Rogers. Or maybe it's multiple passes out of the backfield to Donald Brown and Trent Richardson. Someone must step up.
The Colts had a big game against Tennessee, with Robert Mathis bringing a sack/strip and backup cornerback Cassius Vaughn coming up with two interceptions. If they can generate a key turnover by rattling Dalton with hits and pressure, then the Colts' chances increase. The takeaway-giveaway ratio isn't always as telling as coaches would lead us to believe, unless it's lopsided, say, 3-4 to none. Mathis should get his chances. We'll see if the rest of the Colts defense can be opportunistic again.
More Adam Vinatieri
Field goals can be boring, but if you pile up enough of them, they add up. Vinatieri seems to have found the Fountain of Youth with his ability to be consistently accurate from the 50-yard area. On a day when the weather could play a part, points might be at a premium. It's better, given the Colts' offensive liabilities, to put three points on the board than to gamble and come away with nothing. That's not to say the Colts should never go for it on fourth down, but Vinatieri is one reliable weapon they have to exploit.
Keep it close until the fourth quarter
We've seen the Colts get blown out quickly by the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals and the Bengals are superior to both those teams, especially at home. In fact, two of the Bengals' four losses were in overtime, so they could be 10-2 right now with a play here or there. The Colts are at their best when they have a chance in the fourth quarter, whether ahead or behind. If they can stay within striking distance, maybe Luck can work his late-game magic.
The pick: Bengals 27, Colts 20