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Bengals shoot for surprising start in Denver

That persistent din in the background? That's just the...oh, never mind. John Fox says it doesn't exist.

Six days after a good chunk of the paying crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High expressed audible (to some) discontent with the Denver Broncos' quarterback situation, the team and its first-year coach will once again head to the sidelines in search of win No. 1 on the 2011 schedule when it hosts the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

The Broncos dropped a 23-20 decision to Oakland in a Monday season opener in which starting signal-caller Kyle Orton completed 24 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked five times, intercepted once and fumbled once more -- prompting a chant for backup Tim Tebow that Fox later claimed not to have heard.

Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner who was drafted 25th overall by Denver's previous coaching regime last season, is dueling ex-Notre Dame star and fellow onetime first-round pick Brady Quinn for the next spot in line should Orton fail.

Fox stressed afterward he has no immediate plans to make a quarterback change, however.

"We came up a little short. There were plenty of reasons why. It wasn't just the quarterback by any stretch," he said. "Kyle is our starting quarterback and I don't think too many guys are firing all their guys because their team happened to lose in Week 1."

A well-heeled portion of the Broncos' fan base is taking its case to non- traditional media this week, reportedly pooling its resources to rent a Denver- area billboard for the $10,000 they'd planned to use for a trip to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in February.

Jesse Oaks, a 24-year-old self-employed construction management professional, proposed the billboard idea on a team-centric website on Wednesday and said he received hundreds of e-mails, many offering encouragement and contributions. He said he'll poll Broncos fans on the forum about what the billboard should say and use the most popular sentiment.

"Obviously we're not going to the Super Bowl this year or even the next year," said Oaks. "So we want to spend that money to better our team.

"We gave Orton two years. He can keep us in games, but he does not give us the best chance to win. We're not Tebow fanatics. We think Tebow gives us the best chance to win. But if Brady Quinn or even (practice squad resident) Adam Weber can give us a chance, that's what we want."

In the Bengals, the Broncos will face a team recovering from a non-traditional quarterback controversy of its own, one generated by veteran Carson Palmer's sudden retirement when his offseason demand to be traded was not granted by the team's front office.

Into his spot stepped 23-year-old Andy Dalton, the second-round product of TCU who completed 10-of-15 passes in last week's season opener at Cleveland and led Cincinnati to points on its first three drives (one touchdown, two field goals) of his debut before leaving at halftime with a bruised right forearm.

Journeyman Bruce Gradkowski finished the game, ultimately won by the Bengals by a 27-17 score.

Dalton was able to throw in Thursday's practice, however, and head coach Marvin Lewis says he expects the rookie to start Sunday's game.

"It's getting better every day," Dalton said. "That's all I can ask for. And we'll see going out there what I'm able to do. I'm hopeful."

Gradkowski will still get his share of practice reps while Dalton receives treatment for the injury during the remainder of the week.

"Andy will be limited, and we'll watch and just be careful with him," Lewis said. "I think the more we allow him to rest, the better he will be for Sunday."

SERIES HISTORY

Denver sports a 17-8 overall lead in the season series, extending that advantage with an improbable 12-7 win at Paul Brown Stadium in the 2009 season opener, a game in which Orton connected with wide receiver Brandon Stokley on an 87-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left. The Broncos also came out on top of a 24-23 thriller in Cincinnati's last visit to Sports Authority Field, which took place in 2006. The Bengals are just 2-11 all-time as the visitor in this set and have lost eight straight times in Denver, with the franchise's most recent victory there occurring on Nov. 9, 1975. Cincinnati last bested the Broncos back in 2004, a 23-10 home decision.

Lewis is 1-3 against Denver during his tenure as the Bengals' head coach. Fox split a pair of meetings with Cincinnati over his nine-year run as Carolina's head man from 2002-10, with the one loss coming in his only head-to-head matchup with Lewis back in 2006.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

Dalton, the 35th overall pick in this past April's draft, became the first Bengals rookie quarterback to start the first game of season since Greg Cook in 1969. Gradkowski had a touchdown, no interceptions and a 113.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter against the Browns, and helped lead Cincinnati's comeback with a 41-yard touchdown pass to rookie wideout A.J. Green with under five minutes left. Running back Cedric Benson (121 rushing yards, 1 TD) posted his 13th career 100-yard rushing game with Cincinnati last week, and the Bengals are 11-2 in those games. Green, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, came through with the longest fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown reception in NFL history by a rookie in his team's opener. Fellow wide receiver Jerome Simpson is averaging 97 receiving yards per game in his past three starts, while tight end Jermaine Gresham recorded his fifth career touchdown reception in last week's victory.

Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller, the second player selected in this most recent draft, had a forced fumble in his NFL debut last week. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil had a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his last home game against the Bengals, which took place in 2006, but is questionable after injuring his shoulder against the Raiders. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, starting in place of the injured D.J. Williams (elbow) this week, had an interception in his last meeting with Cincinnati. Defensive end Jason Hunter recorded his 11th career sack in Monday's loss and safety Brian Dawkins led the club with nine tackles versus Oakland.

The Bengals were 12th in points and 24th in total offensive yardage (294) last week, while the Broncos were 15th in points allowed and seventh in yards surrendered (289).

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

Orton registered his 10th career 300-yard passing game in Monday's loss and has a 21-10 career record as a starter at home. He posted a 100.7 passer rating in his last game against the Bengals, which took place in 2009. Running back Willis McGahee averages 91.4 rush yards per game when has 15 or more carries, and the veteran could hit that number with starter Knowshon Moreno questionable to play due to a hamstring problem. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who's also a possible game-time decision because of an injured groin, needs 93 receiving yards to reach 4,000 for his career. In his last nine games at home, Lloyd is averaging 86.7 yards per game. Also on the milestone match, wide receiver Eddie Royal needs 11 catches to reach 200, while second-year pro Eric Decker totaled 181 yards (53 receiving, 128 punt return) and had a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Oakland loss.

Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson registered his first career interception against the Browns last week, while linebacker Thomas Howard has three career picks against the Broncos, his most versus any opponent. Safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson each posted a sack last week, and Nelson led the team with nine tackles.

The Broncos are 20th in points and 21st in total offense (310 yards) through one week, while the Bengals are ninth in points allowed and sixth in yardage surrendered (285).

KEYS TO THE GAME

First impressions aside, Orton is a quarterback capable of winning NFL games and should show resilience in Week 2, though the injuries to Moreno and Lloyd won't help his case.

The injury question will also go a long way toward determining the Bengals' status as it relates to Dalton and Gradkowski. It's looking more likely that the rookie will play, though Gradkowski owns a significant edge in experience.

Cincinnati played well on defense against the Browns and could present a stiff test for a scattershot Denver unit, especially if the Broncos come in short- handed at the skill positions.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Billboards or no billboards, Fox has a task on his hands in attempting to turn around a Broncos franchise that's plummeted since a hot start under the since- excommunicated Josh McDaniels in 2009. The Bengals had a similar perception of doom and gloom entering last week, but gave a glimmer of quarterback optimism with Dalton. If he plays, Cincinnati should build on it and continue the early- season heat on the embattled coach and quarterback on the opposite sideline.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 28, Broncos 20