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Monday Night Football Preview: Breakout Backs Do Battle

Monday night's game features a pair of talented running backs that had never started a game prior to November. Which back gives his team an edge in this one?

Peyton Manning has been a tough nut to crack this year.

Over the past four games, one of the game's greatest quarterbacks hasn't topped 260 yards. He failed to throw a touchdown for the first time in 51 games two weeks ago, and he has attempted an average of only 27.25 passes per game. That's not the Peyton Manning we have come to know.

Yet the Broncos are 4-0 over that span.

Now, they got up against a defense that appears lost at times against the rush. What can we expect tonight? Can the Bengals expel those demons and lock down a playoff spot?

We can answer these questions by looking at numberFire's Game Projections page, which is available for all premium subscribers. It'll show you all things holy when it comes to breaking down a game including a projected final score. It's nerd heaven. Now let's see what it says about tonight's contest.

Another C.J. Anderson Freakout?

Even though Manning's numbers have been human recently, the same cannot necessarily be said for C.J. Anderson.

The past six weeks, Anderson has averaged 133.5 yards from scrimmage per game with a total of six touchdowns. This all for a guy whose career high in rushing yards was 31 prior to Week 9.

The great thing about Anderson is that he provides value no matter which gameplan the Broncos deploy. In the first two games of that aforementioned six-game stretch, Anderson totaled only 22 carries. There, he recorded 12 receptions for 159 yards and a touchdown. That'll work.

Since then, Anderson has averaged 27.25 carries (the exact same number as Manning's pass attempts over that span) for 119.5 yards per game and four touchdowns on the ground. His ability to thrive no matter what the offensive emphasis gives him a stupidly high floor for production.

And now Anderson gets a match-up that could bring a man to tears. The happy kind. Not the Knowshon kind.

Entering Week 16, the Bengals ranked 30th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. This is a numberFire stat that tracks a team's efficiency and is adjusted for strength of schedule. If you rank 30th in a defensive category, you done messed up.

The Bengals have also allowed the fifth-most fantasy points per game to opposing running backs. Sure, a good chunk of this came in one game when Le'Veon Bell slashed them for 235 total yards and three touchdowns, but that's not the only reason. Cincinnati has allowed 14 rushing touchdowns this year, the third most of any team entering Week 16.

Our projections aren't quite as sweet on Anderson as the past few paragraphs. Yes, he was ranked as the number-10 running back in the Week 16 projections, but a large part of that was that he had the highest number of projected rushing touchdowns for the week (0.67). That certainly jives with Cincinnati's apparent adoration of giving up six on the ground.

It's more Anderson's yardage totals that are underwhelming. He's only slated for 49.60 rushing and 27.26 receiving yards. Considering he was held to just 58 total yards two weeks ago (when he was aided by three touchdowns), maybe this is right where his projections should be.

The Emergence of Jeremy Hill

It wouldn't be fair to devote all of that slobber to Anderson without doling out the dap for his counterpart tonight in Jeremy Hill. And neither of these guys had even started an NFL game prior to November.

There have been 27 instances in which a player has rushed for at least 140 yards in a game this season. DeMarco Murray has done it four times. The only other players to do it at least thrice are Hill and Le'Veon Bell. Not bad company to keep.

The bulk stats have been there for Hill when he has been given the opportunity -- and so has the efficiency. Of the 24 players that had carried the ball at least 150 times entering Week 16, Hill ranked fourth in Rushing NEP, which tracks the total expected points added on rushing attempts. That puts him behind only Bell, Justin Forsett, and Jamaal Charles. If we use the same sample but scale it to a per-carry basis, Hill moves up to third behind just Charles and Forsett.

There's one name you'll notice is absent from that list: Hill's partner in crime, Giovani Bernard. And it's not because he doesn't qualify. Bernard had 157 carries entering this week.

Bernard found himself 15th out of the 24 players in Rushing NEP and 16th in Rushing NEP per play. He simply has not been as good as Hill has been this year, and the Bengals are starting to realize that. This is evidenced in that Hill received 26 touches last week compared to Bernard's 18. It was the third consecutive week in which Hill out-touched Bernard. Gio got Wally Pipp'd.

If you want to cite Bernard's perceived big-play abilities as a justification for feeding him more than Hill, I present to you the following stat. Hill has recorded six carries of 20 yards or more this year. Bernard has one. Andy Dalton has two. Don't sleep on Konami Andy, y'all.

For this week, our projections had Hill slated as the ninth-ranked fantasy running back. The algorithms had him down for 63.34 yards rushing and 3.84 receptions for 38.67 yards with 0.45 total touchdowns. The high receiving numbers are probably because no team has allowed more receptions to running backs than the Broncos at 84.

Bernard's decreased involvement and effectiveness have both been factored into the projections. He's only expected to finish with 45.96 yards from scrimmage and 0.23 total touchdowns. It's Jeremy Hill's ship now, and the Bengals would be smart to let him fully take the wheel.

Can the Bengals Punch Their Playoff Ticket?

With a victory either tonight or Sunday, the Bengals are onto the post-season. Tonight would clinch a Wild Card, but they would have to win next week to take the AFC North. We'll keep the discussion just to tonight for now.

The positive thing for the Bengals is that the game is in Cincinnati. The negative thing is that the game is in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven't won there since November 2nd. I know they've only played two games there in that span, but that ruins the fun.

In those two games, Cincinnati has been outscored 66-24 with losses to the Steelers and the Browns. They were 4-0 in the four road games mixed in there, so it's pretty obvious this is some grand scheme to move the franchise elsewhere.

Part of the Game Projections page is a list of the previous games in history that were most similar to tonight's match-up. This can provide us with a blue print for an underdog to pull off an upset. Because the Bengals are 3.5-point dogs on their turf, we'll take a peak at a game that slants in their favor.

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