Monday Night Football Preview: A Patchwork Playoff Preview

The Broncos and Bengals are brimming with injuries, but they're still AFC front runners. Who gets a step closer to the crown on Monday?

Week 16 is a dark, dark time in the NFL season. Injuries are racking up, teams are envisioning their upcoming vacation, and the weather is getting murky fast. The quality football elitists have to do their darndest not to upchuck on their brand new television sets.

Thankfully, we are only burdened with one of these ills on Monday night. Both teams are headed to the postseason, and the weather should be a clear and crisp 22 degrees. What more could you ask for in those departments?

But the injuries. Woof.

This battle for AFC playoff seeding between the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals will feature a quarterback duel with Brock Osweiler and A.J. McCarron. These are the teams vying for a first-round bye. You nasty, Week 16.

That's not going to make this puppy any less interesting. As their records show, both of these teams do have the firepower to make a run at the AFC championship, and the game could also serve as a preview of a more important meeting in January.

Because of this, the game deserves further examination with numberFire's game projections page. This is available for all premium subscribers for each game during the NFL season, showing how the algorithms compare to betting lines and projected stats for both sides. It also includes a detailed list of previous games from history that set up similar to this one to give us a better idea of what to expect after kickoff.

We'll also be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) as a guiding light. NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.

If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, there is an expected number of points a team will score on its current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP. The fluctuations in expected points over the course of the year are NEP.

All of the injuries to each squad have created a plethora of questions whose answers will help determine their ultimate fate. Let's go through four of those questions to see if we can diagnose what figures to be a strange affair.

Can the Bengals Get by Without Andy Dalton?

My, how the narrative around Andy Dalton has shifted. Before the year, the Bengals couldn't win in the playoffs with him. Now, they are possibly presented with the task of winning without him. Not a bad year for the Red Rifle.

To his credit, Dalton has earned this drastic shift in perception. He entered Week 16 as the league's leader in Passing NEP per drop back among the 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this season. Dalton never really found himself in the conversation, but you could have made a legitimate case for Dalton as the MVP prior to his injury.

Given how Dalton had performed, it would seem that the drop off to McCarron would be overwhelming. Truthfully, McCarron has at least held his own early on in his NFL career.

Though he has dropped back only 64 times, McCarron has amassed 6.42 Passing NEP and 0.10 Passing NEP per drop back. That doesn't rival Dalton's mark of 0.35, but it does rank ahead of guys such as Derek Carr and Blake Bortles.

This is certainly encouraging for the Bengals' chances of staying afloat while Dalton is on the mend, but the opposition has certainly played a role in that. The bulk of those attempts have come against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose corners have struggled the past few weeks, and the San Francisco 49ers, who are 25th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Good ol' A.J. won't have that same luxury Monday night.

As you likely could have guessed, the Broncos are the top-ranked team against the pass, according to our metrics, and they have been wrecking the dreams of opposing quarterbacks all season long. The only quarterbacks to have positive NEP against the Broncos this year are Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Andrew Luck. You're not in 'Bama any more, broski.

This defensive prowess has our projections down on McCarron for Monday night. He's slated to throw for 224 yards on 34 attempts (6.59 yards per attempt) with 1.20 touchdowns and 1.22 interceptions. McCarron has been impressive thus far, but he'll need to take another step up to have the upper hand on this opponent.

Should Brock Osweiler Continue Starting?

Similar to Dalton, the perception of Osweiler this year has been nowhere close to consistent. In one week, he's the Broncos' savior. In the next, he's holding the rest of the team back. Is he still the right man for the job?

The answer is kind of just one giant shrug. As with perception, things have been majorly up and down with Osweiler, and the table below of his weekly performances in the eyes of NEP should illustrate that.

Week Passing NEPPassing NEP per Drop Back

Although Osweiler got off to a hot start, he hasn't quite been able to sustain that success over the past four weeks. He has struggled with inconsistency, and it has prevented the Broncos from nailing down late leads in two consecutive games. Thus is the life with a young, inexperienced quarterback.

The output from Osweiler has been far from ideal. There have been times where -- despite good matchups -- he has failed to deliver the results you'd expect from the starting quarterback on a playoff-bound team. But it still appears better than the alternative.

Because Peyton Manning ranks 33rd in Passing NEP per drop back, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which putting him back in the starting role would improve the team's outlook in the short term. Osweiler may not be the best quarterback on the board, but he appears to be the best option Denver has.

Like McCarron, Osweiler finds himself in a difficult matchup this week. The Bengals rank ninth against the pass, according to our metrics, and their secondary is almost back to full health. This brings about an uninspiring projection of 240 passing yards on 35 attempts (6.86 yards per attempt) for Osweiler with 1.06 touchdowns and 0.96 interceptions. Such a day would be in line with what Osweiler has showed thus far: not great, but it'll do without a superior alternative.

How Far Can Denver's Defense Carry Them?

We've established that the offensive situation isn't great for Denver, and it doesn't appear to have a clear solution in sight. Yet, they still sit 10-4 with a shot at a first-round bye. That has to say something about how special their defense is.

Despite allowing Antonio Brown to freak out last week, the Broncos' -0.11 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play is still the runaway league leader. The Carolina Panthers are second at -0.08, and the third-ranked Kansas City Chiefs are all the way up at -0.01. Just for good measure, the Broncos are also fifth against the run. They a'ight.

This defense isn't just the best we've seen this year, but it also holds up against some of the better teams of recent history. From 2010 on, only one team (the 2013 Seattle Seahawks) has had a better Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, and they went on to win the Super Bowl. The offense of that Seattle team operated a bit more competently than these Broncos, but that means lofty aspirations shouldn't be immediately poo-pooed.

At the same time, our algorithms aren't overly optimistic about the Broncos' chances in the postseason. They entered Week 16 in the 10th spot in numberFire's power rankings. At the time, they had a 3.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, though that likely increased slightly with Pittsburgh's loss. Either way, that doesn't seem to be an easy path to the championship.

The reason that aforementioned Seattle team was able to claim the crown was that they coupled their sickly defense with the ninth-ranked offense in Adjusted NEP per play. The Broncos are 31st. The fact that they are as high as 10th in the power rankings just tells you how other-worldly their defense is. That doesn't mean it's enough to carry them deep into the postseason.

Can Cincinnati Pull the Upset?

Even with Pittsburgh's loss Sunday, there's still a shot the Broncos could miss the playoffs. This is a critical game for them. Can the beat-up Bengals make that path a little bit more difficult?

To answer that question, let's go back to the most similar games from history on the game projections page. The top example -- at 92.45 percent similarity -- came last November between the Buffalo Bills (representing the Broncos) and the Kansas City Chiefs (representing the Bengals). The Bills entered the game favored by 1.5, but it was the Chiefs who came away with a 17-13 victory.

This is a script that may be all too familiar for Broncos fans. The Bills built up a 10-3 lead at the half, but they couldn't put the Chiefs away.

While driving in field-goal territory in the third, running back Bryce Brown coughed up a fumble that the Chiefs recovered, wiping points off the board. The Bills kicked a field goal on their next drive to make it 13-3, but the lead could have been even larger.

After the Chiefs made it 13-10 in the fourth quarter, another fumble bit the Bills. Two plays after Leodis McKelvin muffed a punt, Alex Smith pranced in from eight yards out to give the Chiefs the lead. Buffalo's offense did nothing from there on out, and the Chiefs got the win.

This is the problem that Denver faces because of their offense. Even when they build a lead, they may not be able to expand it enough to be fully comfortable. If their offense gives up points on a potential scoring drive or gives the opposing offense a short field, it won't matter much how great the defense is. Unless Denver's offense has a sudden awakening, it's going to be difficult for the Bengals to be out of this one at any point.

And the Winner Is...

Despite the optimistic most similar game, the algorithms do see the Broncos edging the Bengals with a final of 22.24 to 20.48. This puts the Broncos at 55.87 percent win odds prior to kickoff.

With that final score as is, it shouldn't be a surprise that the computers don't favor Denver covering the three-point spread. They have this happening 46.68 percent of the time with the Bengals beating the spread at a 44.18 percent clip.

The one mildly decisive line here is the over/under. Set at 39.5, the game is projected to hit the over 61.44 percent of the time.