NFL Preview - Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Third-year quarterback Andy Dalton has gotten significant credit - and deservedly so - for the turnaround of the Cincinnati Bengals franchise.
Still, the team's late-season success in 2013 may depend less on Dalton, and more on the players to whom he's handing the ball in the backfield.
The 8-4 Bengals can take a step closer to an AFC North Division title on Sunday when the host the AFC South-leading Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium.
Cincinnati leads the second-place Baltimore Ravens by two games with four games to play, including a season-ending home game with the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bengals dropped a 20-17 decision to the Ravens in a Week 10 game at Baltimore.
Win No. 9 may come courtesy of the ground attack that's been good for 138.3 yards per game over the last four games. Cincinnati had 164 yards rushing - a yard off its season-best single-game total - in a 17-10 road win at San Diego last weekend.
Dalton had a TD pass and an interception in the win, but has thrown three more picks (9) than touchdowns (6) in his last four games while compiling a 59.8 passer rating and a 2-2 record.
Indianapolis is fifth from the bottom of the league in rush defense, allowing 128.6 yards per game.
"We've been able to do different things," Dalton said. "Certain games we've run the ball well and the run game has been working, and other games we've had to throw it a lot. It depends on the game and what we're needing to do that's helped us win a lot of games this year.
"We can do so many different things, so as long as you're winning games and it's working, that's all that matters."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 92 yards on 20 attempts against the Chargers and was complemented by Giovani Bernard, who added 57 yards on 14 carries. The Bengals are one of just six teams in the league that's still without a 100-yard rusher in any game.
The dual attack yields multiple options for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden..
"It lets (Gruden) utilize his entire playbook and not limit him at all," Bernard said. "If there's a situation where I need to go in, he'll throw me in. If there's a situation he wants Benny in, he'll throw him in. It definitely helps us and we definitely use it to our advantage."
Though the run game is certainly an imposing challenge, almost as much of a concern to Colts coach Chuck Pagano is the Cincinnati pass rush - particularly against a depleted offensive line.
Indianapolis right guard Jeff Linkenbach is questionable this week with a quadriceps injury, after he'd been filling in for original starter Mike McGlynn since he was shelved with a fractured thumb on Nov. 10.
The Bengals have sacks opposing quarterbacks 18 times in their last five games and have held passers to a conference-low 5.28 yards per pass attempt. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked five times - a season-worst - in last week's home win against Tennessee.
Luck was sacked 41 times as a rookie last season. Similar to Dalton, he's skidded to a 66.7 percent passer rating in the last four games with two touchdowns and five interceptions.
"It's our biggest concern right now, first and foremost," Pagano said. "That's been since Day 1, since we drafted him No. 1, to protect 12. That's never going to change."
Indianapolis can clinch an eighth division crown in 11 years with a win, or a Titans loss to Denver. The Colts enter the week as the prospective No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, though they'll lose that position with a loss to the Bengals, who enter as the No. 4 seed.
"We're sitting in a good position, but nothing is sealed up," Pagano said. "We control our own destiny. They understand the record, they understand the division, they understand what we have to do to get into the playoffs. Certainly, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves. The worst thing we can do is get complacent."
Taking heat off Luck has been unheralded running back Donald Brown, who's become a starter after sitting behind a trio of teammates - included much- heralded trade acquisition Trent Richardson - since the start of the season.
Brown ran for 54 yards against Tennessee and scored from four yards out with less than two minutes to play.
"He is the ultimate team guy," linebacker Robert Mathis said. "He doesn't like to talk about himself because he's not his favorite subject. He just goes to work and he just lets his play do all the talking."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Clean up your Luck.
In just less than two years in the league, Luck has shown himself a quality weapon so long as he's upright and unhurried in the pocket. A key to him utilizing his weapons will be how well the Colts are able to keep his harassment level to a minimum.
Pound the rock.
It's not a difficult equation. A quality running team plus a defense that has problems stopping the ground game usually equals success for the former. That's what the Bengals will be counted on as Gruden goes all in with Green- Ellis and Bernard, and uses Dalton in play-action schemes.
A pair of division leaders who look destined to reach the playoffs and perhaps see each other there shortly after arrival. In a game with little to discern one side from another, it'll be the basics - time possession and defense, not to mention home field - that gets it done for Cincinnati.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 24, Colts 20