1) Let's get the big question out of the way: What is the impact to the Bengals of not having Andy Dalton starting at QB and how is McCarron doing so far as his replacement?
There is no way around it, the loss of Dalton is huge. Dalton has always put up decent numbers, but his issues were consistency from game to game and his ability to avoid costly turnovers. This season, however, he has been incredibly consistent from game to game and had greatly decreased his turnovers. You hear about how things start "slowing down" for quarterbacks and "clicking?" Well, that seemed to be happening with Dalton this season.
He looked comfortable in the offense, was taking what the defense was giving him, and he stopped forcing passes that just weren't there. I think the level of improvement had to even surprise Bengals coaches to a certain extent. At the time of his injury, Dalton was a legitimate MVP candidate. I am not saying that he would have (or should have) won had he not been injured, but he was worthy to be in the conversation - and no one (coaches included) would have thought that prior to the season.
Without Dalton, the offense simply is not as dangerous. Sure, the weapons are the same and just as dangerous, but McCarron does not have the grasp of the offense that Dalton has. As a result, you don't have the veteran audibles and you see a lot more throwaways and sacks. Against a putrid 49ers defense last week, the Bengals managed just 242 yards of total offense, and their three touchdown drives totaled 67 yards...combined! Some of that may have been a conservative game plan, but some of that is just the difference between a five-year veteran quarterback with 75+ starts and four playoff appearances under his belt, and essentially a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start. That being said, I thought McCarron played as well as could be expected. He completed 71% of his passes, had a touchdown and most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over.
While I think the Bengals can win games against good teams with McCarron, I don't think they can win games against good teams because of him - and that is the main difference in this offense without Dalton.
2) Both of our teams tout big time defenses. What makes the Bengals defense the powerhouse that it is?
The strength of the Bengals defense is their defensive line, most notably, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, who are the only teammates in the NFL with double digit sacks (10 and 10.5). In my opinion, Atkins is one of (if not) the most disruptive interior lineman in the game and makes everyone around him better. Dunlap is your prototypical defensive end -long, powerful and quick. At 6'6" and 280 pounds, he plays all three downs and has benefited greatly by the return of a healthy Atkins in the middle and the signing of Michael Johnson on the opposite side.
The Bengals' line also benefits from a seven/eight man rotation. Thanks to a deep line, the Bengals are able to rotate seven or eight guys without experiencing a huge drop off, and as a result, they are able to keep their linemen fresh all game long. This could be critical on Monday because Atkins has sickle cell trait, a condition that can cause issues in high altitude.
3) Tell us about a couple of players that we've probably not heard of but who are making big-time positive impacts this year for your team.
Prior to the season, I would have said Tyler Eifert, but I think most fans (and teams) have caught on to him by now - though it sounds like he could miss this game (concussion).'
Two guys that are worth keeping an eye on are Marvin Jones and Tyler Kroft. Jones is the Bengals speedy No. 2 receiver and despite having to share the ball with A.J. Green, Eifert and all the other Bengals weapons, Jones has 57 catches, 745 yards and 4 touchdowns - and in his last healthy season (2013), he had 10 touchdowns. In most offenses, he would put up 1,000+ yards and 8-10 touchdowns.
Kroft is the tight end who will be taking Eifert's spot. He is a big (6'5", 246 pound), athletic rookie that can catch and block. Because of the weapons the Bengals have, he hasn't been a big part of the offense to this point, but with Eifert out last week, Kroft had 3 catches for 31 yards and a nice 20-yard touchdown. In fact, Kroft and Jones accounted for 7 of McCarron's 15 completions last week and 120 of his 192 yards.
4) It is Monday night. Huge playoff implications rest on this one game. Who on your team needs to put the team on his shoulders and make a big impact to win the game and why?
I would say the entire offensive line. The Bengals have one of the best offensive lines in the game, but last week in San Francisco, while facing on of the worst defenses in the league, they struggled (putting it mildly). The Bengals line surrendered four sacks, four quarterback hits and ran for just 68 yards on 36 carries (1.9 YPC) despite going against the 31st ranked run defense.
As you and I know, the Broncos have the top-ranked run and pass defense and the task this week is much more difficult. In my opinion, if the Bengals' offensive line allows McCarron to be hit like he was last week and cannot get a run game established, the Bengals can't win this game. However, if they can keep McCarron upright and establish enough of a run game to keep the Broncos defense honest, then I think the Bengals have a good shot.
5) What are your keys to the game and prediction?
For the Bengals, the keys will be both lines. For the offensive line, keep McCarron upright and establish a run game. For the defensive line, the Bengals needs to get pressure on Brock Osweiler with just four rushers - Atkins is key here. If they can do that, they can force some poor decisions and the Bengals secondary - although dinged up - is very opportunistic. If they cannot get pressure on Osweiler, he will be able to expose the Bengals linebackers and pick on some of the Bengals backup corners.
As for my prediction, if Dalton were playing, I would pick the Bengals. Without him, I think the Bengals can win, but they will need a lot to go right for that to happen. With what I saw from the offense last week - most notably the offensive line - I would consider a win by the Bengals an upset. I will say Broncos 24, Bengals 17.