- Peyton Manning and the dark of night? – (SportsNetwork.com) - Peyton Manning and the dark of night?
That's as scary as it gets for the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals inched closer to what would be an ongoing franchise-record fourth consecutive postseason berth in Week 15 when plenty of money signs were flashed but none coming from the player most associated with the overbearing gesture, Johnny Manziel.
The Cleveland rookie quarterback's first career NFL start was as dismal as it gets and the Browns were whitewashed, 30-0, by the AFC North-leading Bengals.
But if Jim Ross was getting ready to broadcast the Bengals' next game, the famed wrestling announcer might say: "Business is about to pick up."
Cincinnati can clinch the playoff spot with a win over the AFC West champion Denver Broncos on Monday night, and it can earn the AFC North crown with a win coupled with losses by the Steelers, who play Kansas City on Sunday, and the Ravens, who are at Houston.
"We're still in control of everything," said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. "We know these next two games are going to be big. The way our division is going, everyone keeps winning. We know what we're facing."
What their facing is the Boogeyman on "Monday Night Football," along with the stark realization that Manziel will be turning into Manning over a one-week span.
That's the equivalent of a basic arithmetic test followed up by one on advanced calculus.
"It's going to be a big shift, safe to say," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis admitted. "It's a challenge. (Manning) gets everyone's attention in this building right away. The player he is, how he carries himself, how he runs things on the field -- it's going to be a great challenge for us."
Challenge may be an under statement because the Bengals have never beaten Manning whether he was in Indianapolis or Denver, compiling an 0-8 mark when the five-time MVP is lined up opposite them.
If that wasn't daunting enough, the game is also going to be played after sundown and that's never a good thing for Cincinnati.
The Bengals have played twice in primetime so far this season, getting blown out both times, a 43-17 setback at New England in a Sunday night game on Oct. 5, and a 24-3 drubbing at the hands of the Browns while Brian Hoyer was still in charge on Thursday, Nov. 6.
Since Dalton took over the Bengals in the 2011 season Cincinnati is playing .250 football (2-6) under the national spotlight, a sharp contrast from its 37-16-1 mark over that same span during day games.
"I have no idea," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said when asked about the team's struggles at night. "I guess we're afraid of the dark."
Add in the three playoff losses since 2011 and the Bengals are a downright dismal 2-9 when the spotlight is focused squarely on them and Lewis' team is tired of hearing about it.
"It is annoying and it's our job to make it unannoying," safety George Iloka said. "If we lose this game, the talk will come back again. But that's (the media's) job to do. And if we want to silence the critics, we've got to put up or shut up. That's how it goes. It might be annoying, but that's on us."
Silencing anyone on Monday is going to be a daunting task.
Manning and the Broncos' offense have taken a step back from their historical 2013 performance, perhaps the best statistical season in NFL history.
That said, when you look up, the numbers remain staggering as Manning is third in the AFC with 4,143 passing yards and even better with 37 TD passes (second in the NFL) and a 106.4 passer rating (tops in the conference). The veteran now has an NFL record 14 career 4,000-yard passing seasons and headlines an offense that is fifth in the NFL in both yards (400.7 yards per game) and points per game (29.1).
If anything the group has become more well-rounded in recent weeks because of the emergence of the ground game and C.J. Anderson, who is averaging 135.3 scrimmage yards per game (812 total) with six total TDs (four rushing, two receiving) over the past six games.
The receiving threats, meanwhile, remain as good as any in football led by Demaryius Thomas, who has 1,389 receiving yards and leads all AFC receivers with 41 TD catches since entering the league in 2010. His running mate, Emmanuel Sanders, has a career-high 1,261 yards and seven TD catches over his past nine games.
The Cincinnati defense looked like world-beaters against Manziel but has taken a significant step back overall without Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota.
The Bengals D entered last week's contest 25th in the league and are now 20th after dominating Manziel.
The 25 number is probably more indicative of where Cincinnati belongs because facing a QB who isn't ready to play in the NFL is an anomaly and certainly not what the Bengals will be up against on Monday night.
"We have to get through this game before we have any opportunities at January," Lewis said. "It's been (a playoff mentality) for the last seven weeks. Preparation and how you go about it, and the confidence of knowing what to do and how to do it allows you to play fast. That's the most important thing, for us: to play fast, to play physical, to play smart."