Several historical obstacles stand in the way of the Cincinnati Bengals ahead of their key matchup against the Denver Broncos.
They haven't won in primetime, can't seem to beat the Broncos and are winless against Peyton Manning.
Should the Bengals reverse those trends when they host Denver on Monday night, they will clinch their fourth consecutive postseason berth.
Cincinnati (9-4-1) is coming off its strongest overall performance after cruising to a 30-0 drubbing of Cleveland on Sunday. Jeremy Hill picked up AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense forced rookie Johnny Manziel into two interceptions and just 80 passing yards.
Now the focus switches to a much more tenured quarterback.
"It's going to be a big shift, safe to say," coach Marvin Lewis said of facing Manning. "It's a challenge. He 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. It's what it's supposed to be in December, just like this."
Manning is 8-0 in his career against the Bengals, most recently completing 27 of 35 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-23 win over Cincinnati on Nov. 4, 2012.
That victory was the latest in a long line of dominance for Denver in the series - even without Manning at the helm. The Broncos beat Cincinnati in Andy Dalton's second career start in 2011 after needing a last-minute, tip-drill 87-yard touchdown pass to move past the Bengals in 2009. Denver has won 13 of the last 15 meetings with Cincinnati.
"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, since Halloween. 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."
Denver (11-3) has already punched its ticket to the postseason, but a first-round bye and home-field advantage remain at stake. The Broncos can clinch the bye with a win, but would need to jump New England (11-3) in the standings for the AFC's top seed. They beat San Diego 22-10 on Sunday to secure their fourth consecutive AFC West championship.
"It's our goal every year. Everybody's hope and dream before the season is you'll be hoisting that championship trophy," coach John Fox said. "We got close last year and came up short ... Obviously, (the AFC West title) is a great accomplishment, but we still have more season left."
Despite having Manning under center, the Broncos have won four straight behind a well-established run game. Since falling in St. Louis on Nov. 16, Denver has rushed for 164.8 yards per game, including a 111-yard effort against the Chargers.
Manning rebounded from his first zero-touchdown performance with Denver in a win over Buffalo on Dec. 7, completing 14 of 20 attempts for 233 yards and a TD while playing through an illness. He expects to be fully healthy against the Bengals, whom he has torched for 20 touchdowns in his career while throwing just five interceptions.
Cincinnati's run-heavy offense will face a stout challenge from Denver, which ranks among league leaders with 71.6 rushing yards allowed per game. Led by Hill and Giovanni Bernard, the rushing attack has amassed 145.3 yards per game and six TDs since Week 12.
Denver has been less imposing against the pass but made sure to lock down top cover corner Chris Harris Jr., signing the fourth-year player to a five-year, $42.5 million extension last week. He'll be rewarded with a matchup against A.J. Green and a Bengals passing attack that has failed to top 300 yards in eight of the last nine games.
"We know these next two games are going to be big," said Dalton, whose 82.9 rating ranks 16th of 20 NFL quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts. "The way our division is going, everyone keeps winning ... We know what we are facing. They are really important."
Cincinnati has been blown out twice in primetime this season, losing 43-17 at New England in a Sunday night game Oct. 5 and 24-3 to the Browns on Thursday night Nov. 6.
Denver's primetime results have been quite the opposite. The Broncos are 4-0 in night games this season, most recently defeating Kansas City 29-16 on Nov. 30.
The Broncos and Bengals last met with postseason implications on Christmas Eve 2006. Trailing by seven with under a minute remaining, Carson Palmer threw a 10-yard TD pass to trim it to 24-23, but the snap was botched on the extra-point attempt and Cincinnati ultimately missed the playoffs by one game.