Bengals, Colts following similar paths

CINCINNATI – No two AFC cities are closer to each other than Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Only 110 miles separate them.

The Bengals and Colts are that close to one another in many other ways, most notably how they sit in the AFC playoff standings heading into this Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium. They are both 8-4, both in first place in their respective divisions and trying to catch New England (9-3) for the No. 2 spot in the conference and a first-round postseason bye. Indianapolis currently has the No. 3 seed with four games left to play by virtue of a better conference record than the Bengals (6-2 vs. 6-3) but Sunday’s winner will own the tie-breaker to beat all tie-breakers.

The Bengals already have a win against New England so should they keep winning and the Patriots falter at least once down the stretch, they would be in line to earn that first postseason weekend off from playing.

But first things first: the Colts and quarterback Andrew Luck. And defensive end Robert Mathis, who after years of playing excellent football in the shadow of Dwight Freeney is now making everyone take notice of him by leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks.

“They’re a good football team,” said Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth. “You really like the way they play and the tenacity they play with and some of the games they’ve had this year where they just come out and really out-physical a team. You appreciate that. I think it’s going to be a great game and a great challenge.”

Whether Whitworth returns to his familiar left tackle spot or moves inside to left guard as a replacement for Clint Boling, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, has yet to be officially announced. Things are pointing that Whitworth will move inside and Anthony Collins will play left tackle. The alignment worked well last week in San Diego as the Bengals rushed for 164 yards in their 17-10 win.

Even Whitworth said how beneficial it would be to have a full week of practice at the position after the impromptu move against the Chargers. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is improved with his foot injury but his workouts Wednesday were limited to the side field with trainers. Head coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday that the team expected Zeitler back this week but Lewis backed off that statement Wednesday. It’s likely that Zeitler sits for another week while former Colt Mike Pollak starts.

“We have some young guys, and we’ve got some guys with some skins on the wall that are a little more mature than the other guys, but they do have some skins on the wall,” said Lewis. “Playing is important to them, and they know how to play. They can adjust to the game, which is important. Mike Pollak has done a great job. Every chance A.C. gets, he does good for us.”

The Bengals and Colts were the two AFC wild card teams last season; the Bengal went to Houston and lost, while Indianapolis traveled to Baltimore and lost to the Ravens. They are both led by young quarterbacks who grew up in the Houston area and who have had a lot of success in their short careers; Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to consecutive playoff berths, while Luck has lived up to his billing as the No. 1 overall draft choice from 2012.

“You look at (Seattle’s) Russell Wilson and Andrew and Andy, they’re smart guys,” said Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano. “We know the skill set that they have. We know what their intangibles are. They’re passionate about football. They study the game. They’re great managers of the game and their offense.”

Dalton has thrown for 3,114 yards this season, joining former Colt and current Denver quarterback Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history to pass for 3,000 yards each of his first three seasons. He has equaled a career-high with 16 interceptions but Dalton is also on pace to throw a career-best 29 touchdowns. He has shown a resiliency that’s not unlike Luck.

Luck has led the Colts to game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime of games 10 times already in his first 28 games. They are 19-9 overall in the last two seasons and 15-2 in games decided by one possession.

Dalton and Luck each replaced big-name franchise quarterbacks; Dalton took over for Carson Palmer, while Luck was drafted to take over for Manning.

“I grew up probably 15 minutes down the road, 20 minutes away from his high school and he was a couple years older than me. I remember watching him in the state playoffs,” said Luck of Dalton. “From my perspective if there’s a blueprint on how to do it Andy Dalton is definitely a guy to follow. He’s a great football player.”

Come Sunday afternoon, one of them will have a postseason leg up on the other.