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Bengals vs. Colts Wild Card Preview: Which Andy Dalton Will We See?

Is this the game where Andy Dalton forgets his playoff woes?

Sunday's Wild Card matchup between the Colts and Bengals is a battle between two streaky teams. The Colts have had winning streaks of four and five games this season, while the Bengals had two winning streaks of three games, and would have had another if they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

It's also a battle of hot takes and reputation. If the Colts win, Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis "can't win in the playoffs", and Lewis might even see his job in danger with four consecutive first-round exits. And if the Bengals win, I'm sure there are plenty of folks ready to say Andrew Luck isn't clutch or a good quarterback.

Can Good Andy Dalton Show Up in a Playoff Game?

Dalton and the Bengals have now made four consecutive trips to the playoffs, but Dalton has put up stinkers in each of his three playoff contests. His per-game averages from the three games are 23.3 of 41 (56.9%) for 239.3 yards, 0.3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.

Two of Dalton’s first-round exits were against the Texans in 2011 and 2012, both top-10 defenses. Last year’s loss to the Chargers, a team with a subpar pass defense, seems to be all on Dalton, who had two picks and a fumble in the second half of the game.

Perhaps Dalton is able to perform better this year with Jeremy Hill in the backfield, but the Colts’ defense is menacing to passers. According to our in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Colts finished 11th against the pass with an Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP of 32.24, and 13th on a per-play basis.

Dalton played seven games in the 2014 regular season against the Colts, and six teams with better seasonal Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. In games against the Panthers and Texans, he played well. He also had deceptive good-looking stats when the Patriots demolished the Bengals back in Week 5. In the remaining four games, he was dreadful.

In the regular season, Dalton placed 16th out of the 24 quarterbacks with 400-plus pass attempts in Passing NEP with a 24.54 score. Per play, Dalton placed 17th in the group. He isn’t one of the elite passers, but he has shown he can quarterback a team to victory over good teams. Three playoff appearances is a small sample size, and Dalton could surprise. We project 222.36 passing yards, 1.44 touchdowns, and 0.92 interceptions from Dalton in this one.

Running Backs Might Not Have Room to Run

This game features two of the more interesting running back combos, with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard for the Bengals and Dan “Boom” Herron and Trent “Bust” Richardson for the Colts. However, we may not see a huge rushing day on either side.

After losing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as well as multiple players on the defensive side, the Bengals were arguably the worst rushing defense in the league this year. On the season, they finished 26th in the NFL in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, but the Bengals actually improved as the season went on. From Weeks 11 through 17, the Bengals recorded -18.54 NEP, a staggering improvement.

By now, you should know of Trent Richardson. Sticking to his normal mediocrity, he posted a -0.09 Rushing NEP per tote in 2014 on 160 carries, which was the 47th-best out of 60 running backs with 75 or more carries. While he managed 77 yards on 14 carries in the season’s matchup versus the Bengals, he's unlikely to repeat against the improved Bengals unit. His companion in the backfield, Dan Herron, has fared better, finishing 30th out of the 60 backs in Rushing NEP per rush. We expect the Colts to rush for 102.66 yards.

The Colts defense finished 15th in against the run this year. However, it's worth noting that this data is severely skewed by the Jonas Gray game, which resulted in 19.95 Rushing NEP. Without that game, the Colts were actually pretty decent against the run.

This could mean trouble for Jeremy Hill, who posted 0.09 Rushing NEP per rush on 222 carries during his rookie campaign. However, we do project him to reach almost 4.5 yards per carry, for 14.87 carries, 66.15 yards, and 0.56 touchdowns.

On the other hand, Giovani Bernard has struggled in his sophomore season, to the tune of -0.04 Rushing NEP per rush on 168 carries. We project only 6.72 carries for 26.88 yards in change-of-pace duty, with 3.68 catches for 22.96 yards. However, Bernard could easily beat this projection if the Colts jump out to an early lead and the Bengals are forced to play from behind.

Bengals Have to Prevent a Shootout

Five of the top six strongest predictors for this game point to the Bengals advancing to the divisional round.

Our top predictor is from December of 2000, when the Miami Dolphins manhandled the Buffalo Bills, 33-6. Lamar Smith rushed for 100 yards on 28 carries, and Jay Fielder threw for 214 yards on only 21 attempts while tossing scores to Smith, Leslie Shepherd, and Oronde Gadsden.

Apart from the Bengals winning, a similarity between the top four predictors is defensive play. In each of the four games, the winning team held the opponent to 14 points or less. The Colts’ offense has more firepower than the Bengals, so it makes sense that the Bengals will want to keep the score down.

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