Five things to watch in Sunday’s Bengals-Colts game

Will Andrew Luck prove himself as an elite QB in the NFL? Or will Andy Dalton finally lead the Bengals to their first playoff victory?

Jim Brown / Aaron Doster/Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Jan. 6, 1991. It’s a date the Bengals know all too well. It’s the last time the franchise won a playoff game. Cincinnati 41, Houston (as in the Oilers) 14. A tidy, efficient day at Riverfront Stadium in which the Bengals rolled out to a 34-0 lead and held Houston to 226 yards of offense.

The Bengals found out for certain on Saturday what they knew all week was a distinct possibility, that wide receiver A.J. Green will not be available to play against Indianapolis in their AFC wild card game because of a concussion. Green was hurt in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh on a hit by Steelers’ safety Mike Mitchell after Green had lost a fumble at the Pittsburgh 30-yard line.

While not having Green, their most dangerous weapon in the passing attack, in the lineup is a major loss, it’s not insurmountable and the game plan against the Colts won’t be changed dramatically. For the Bengals to break their drought of 24 years without a playoff victory, of five postseason losses under coach Marvin Lewis, including each of the last three years, they will have to have their running game at its best and the defense is going to have to find a way to slow down Andrew Luck and the Colts’ passing game.

That wasn’t the case on Oct. 19 when the Colts beat the Bengals 27-0 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bengals went three-and-out on their first eight possessions and finished with just eight first downs and 32 yards rushing yards on 12 carries.

Both teams have repeated all week how different they both are from that first game. The Bengals will have to be if they want to change the narrative and outcome of this playoff game.

Three things to watch for in Sunday’s game:

GROUND & POUND: Jeremy Hill was just a blip in the offensive scheme back in Week 7. He’s now the focal point of everything the Bengals do. The Bengals have found their identity in the last seven games. Hill has four of his five 100-yard games have come in that stretch, including three games of 147 yards or more. Giovani Bernard is healthy, which he wasn’t in the first game, and he and Hill are working well as a tandem. In the last three games they’ve combined to produce 659 yards and four touchdowns on 114 touches over the last three games.

In five playoff games under Lewis, the Bengals have averaged 84.8 yards rushing and 20 carries (while the defense has allowed an average of more than 171 yards). That can’t be the case on Sunday for the Bengals to have a chance to win.

KEEPING COOL: Negative things are going to happen to each team. Indianapolis showed how it’s capable of responding last year when it came back from a 38-10 deficit against Kansas City in this same round for a 45-44 win. The Bengals haven’t demonstrated that ability in their recent playoff history. They’ve held leads in each of their five playoff games in the Lewis era but have been outscored 71-13 in the second halves of those games. They’ve showed a better ability to bounce back for negative plays during the last month of this season, including each of the last two games when they fell behind early against Denver and Pittsburgh. When things go awry — and they will at some point — can the Bengals stay with their game plan and respond?

TURNOVERS: The most indicative stat when it comes to the outcome of playoff games is turnover margin. The Bengals are minus-11 in their five playoff losses under Lewis and minus-7 in the last three games. They haven’t held onto the ball, losing it 12 times, but they’ve also failed to take it away. Leon Hall’s 21-yard interception return for a touchdown at Houston in 2012 is the only turnover the defense has forced. Indianapolis has a minus-6 turnover margin this season and no playoff team has had more turnovers than the Colts’ 31. The Bengals have forced seven takeaways in the last two games.

Luck has a way of negating those mistakes, however. The Colts were minus-2 on turnovers against the Bengals in October. Still, the Bengals can’t afford to give Indianapolis extra possessions.

KEY MATCHUP: Bengals QB Andy Dalton vs. Bengals QB Andy Dalton

No one playing in this game will have a bigger gorilla on their back than Dalton. He has to be able to stay within himself and limit his mistakes. He’s thrown just one touchdown pass and six interceptions in three postseason games. The Bengals don’t ask Dalton to throw for 300 yards but they need him to protect the ball, make good decisions and be efficient. No A.J. Green means Dalton will have to utilize Mohamed Sanu more than he has the second half of the season, and Sanu needs to come up big when the opportunity arises.

Dalton and the Bengals pushed aside a couple of their personal demons when they beat Denver and Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football two weeks ago. If they want to stop being asked the questions about their playoff struggles, they have to take care of it themselves.

KEY STAT: The Colts were No. 2 in the NFL in stopping teams on third down but there has been a marked difference in the success rate between their wins and losses. In their 11 wins the Colts have allowed just 23.6 percent conversions (33-of-140), including holding the Bengals to 1-of-13 on Oct. 19. In their five losses, however, the Colts have been gashed at a rate of 55.7 percent (34-of-61). Convert third downs, keep the chains moving and put the ball in the end zone is the best way to beat Luck.