December 23, 2015

It's certainly not ideal for the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals to have their backup quarterbacks learning on the job as starters with so much at stake late in the season.

Brock Osweiler has had more time to adjust to his role of filling in for Peyton Manning over the last five games, but he likely won't consider himself any further along than AJ McCarron, who makes his second career start Monday night in Denver.

The Bengals (11-3) were forced to turn to McCarron after Andy Dalton broke his thumb against Pittsburgh two weeks ago. McCarron threw two interceptions in that 33-20 loss but bounced back to go 15 of 21 for 192 yards and a touchdown in last week's 24-14 win at San Francisco that clinched a playoff berth.

Now, McCarron will try to help Cincinnati secure the AFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Ironically, winning this game would increase the chances that he doesn't play in the postseason with Dalton having an extra week to recover and potentially return.

McCarron, though, said he's focused simply on improving. He took four sacks last week and three in relief of Dalton against the Steelers, some of those coming on plays where he should've thrown the ball away.

Things won't get any easier this week against Denver (10-4), which leads the league in total defense with 279.9 yards allowed per game and is tied with New England with an NFL-high 47 sacks.

"Everything's not going to be perfect in a game - we want it to be, but it's not going to be, that's football - but to play with the best of your ability," McCarron said. "I feel like I'm always calm. I show my emotion inside the white lines, and when I leave the field, I'm pleased with the win but I try to never get too high or too low.

"I think the guys will tell you I play with a lot of passion and hopefully a lot of the excitement for them. So I just try to hold the team and myself up to that standard."

Replacing a legend like Manning hasn't been easy for Osweiler, but he's arguably been Denver's best quarterback this season. Manning struggled with nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions before suffering a torn plantar fascia in his left foot that has kept him out of the last five.

The Broncos have gone 3-2 in that stretch with Osweiler completing 60.3 percent of his passes - Manning has completed 59.9 percent - while throwing eight touchdowns and four picks. Coach Gary Kubiak has let him loose, as he threw 51 passes in a 15-12 loss to Oakland two weeks ago and had three TDs in last week's 34-27 loss to Pittsburgh.

It's the second half in which Osweiler has run into trouble. Denver has been outscored 36-0 after the break over its last three, and Osweiler has posted a 65.8 rating in the second half compared to 109.4 in the first.

He'll likely need to close that gap this week as the Broncos try to secure a postseason berth. They can do so with a victory and loss by New York or Pittsburgh, and can win the AFC West with a victory and a Kansas City defeat or tie.

"It starts with me, and I need to play better in the second half, and I will play better in the second half," Osweiler said. "I'm judging my performances right now by wins and losses. Bottom line: I know I've got to get a win."

Even when Osweiler is on target, he's not always getting the help he needs. Vernon Davis and Demaryius Thomas had crucial drops the last two weeks, and wins in either of those games would've improved Denver's playoff chances.

As it stands, the Broncos have an outside shot to land a first-round bye. They also could miss the postseason.

''We have other plays that we need to make, too,'' Kubiak said. ''There are a lot of positive plays that we need to hang on to. A lot of positive things going on that we need to build from and not try to attack some negative here or there. We're going to stay focused on the positive and move forward.''

Denver's usually sound defense gave up its highest point total of the season against the Steelers and will look to bounce back against the Bengals, who gained a season-low 242 yards last week.

Cincinnati's running game was especially disappointing, compiling 64 yards and 1.9 per carry to give them a two-week total of 132. Coach Marvin Lewis wouldn't say why Jeremy Hill, who had 19 carries for 31 yards, didn't start for the first time all season, or if he would start against the Broncos.

"We have to prepare to grind. In that kind of game, those things are important," Lewis said. "We're going to have to play the hardest, longest all the way through. It will be fun, it's a great opportunity. Both teams have earned it, and we've got to have at it."

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