CINCINNATI – Las Vegas oddmakers make the Bengals 3½ -point favorites over the Broncos Sunday, but it's hard to see why.
Through two games, the Super Bowl champions have a clear advantage except at quarterback – and that depends on the Bengals protecting Andy Dalton from Denver's furious rush and some headhunters on their defense.
So here are 9 storylines to watch at Paul Brown Stadium:
1) The Broncos' defense, led by Super Bowl MVP and "Dancing With The Stars" LVP Von Miller, is up to its nasty self. It ranks sixth in the NFL and second against the pass – meaning it could be primed to shut down Dalton's passing game, the only way the Bengals have generated any offense in their first two games.
2) After nearly getting Dalton killed in the first game, when the Jets sacked him seven times, the Bengals offensive line stepped up their protection against the Steelers, and they only got to Dalton once. Miller has four of Denver's eight sacks, and it will up be to his former Texas A&M teammate Cedric Ogbuehito keep Miller from putting Dalton on his back. With help, of course.
"You have to know where (Miller's) at because he is a guy who can really change the course of the game with how good he is," Dalton said last week.
The Bengals get a break with their other top rusher, DeMarcus Ware (two sacks), out with a broken forearm.
3) Two Broncos defenders have been fined for illegal hits on the quarterback in the first two games, so protecting Dalton may be especially important Sunday.
S Darian Stewart was fined $9,115 for his forearm hit to Colts QB Andrew Luck last week and said he'll appeal. Stewart was fined $18,231 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Panthers QB Cam Newton in the opener.
Linebacker Brandon Marshall was fined $24,309 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Newton.
The Broncos hit Newton 17 times while he was running or throwing. The Broncos walloped several of the game's elite QBs on the way to their title last season, holding Aaron Rodgers to the worst performance of his career and putting the hurt on Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Newton in the playoffs.
"I think we have the most fun when we're just being ourselves and that's what coach lets us do on game day, and it's our responsibility to stay within the rules and the boundaries," safety T.J. Ward said last week. "Sometimes we cross them, but that's part of the game. If you want a team of personalities attacking, sometimes you've got to take the good with the bad."
4) The Broncos' defense has been vulnerable to the run, giving up 120 yards per game. But the Bengals haven't moved the ball on the ground at all in the first two games. Their 51.5 yard average is second worst in the league. If Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard can't run against the Broncos, it figures to be a long day.
"It's a point of emphasis," Dalton said. "We're not running the ball how we want to."
5) On the other side of the ball, the Broncos are sixth in the league in rushing (141 avg.) – gaining 4.7 yards per carry - and Bengals are second last in rushing defense (138 avg.). Denver RB C.J. Anderson leads the NFL with seven runs of at least 10 yards. If the Bengals can't stop the run, see above.
6) The Bengals' only obvious edge is at QB, where Dalton, coming off his career-best season, has the NFL's best passer rating.
Dalton appears fully recovered from a broken right thumb that sidelined him for the last four games – including the Bengals' overtime loss in Denver last December. He leads the NFL with 732 yards after two games.
"It's just a different team when Andy's out there," Miller said. "He has full hold of the offense. He's able to make all the throws. He's able to run the ball. He's been there six years and when Andy's in there, it's just a different team. They've got No. 14 back this year and their passing is looking explosive."
7) Denver QB Trevor Siemian is making only his third NFL start, and Broncos coaches have been easing him into Peyton Manning's shoes, keeping the passing game simple and short.
The relative rookie has shown both his promise and his inexperience, driving Denver inside the opponents' 36-yard line on 13 of 18 drives but coming away with just four touchdowns to go with three interceptions. Siemian has but one touchdown pass.
"I think we're doing some good things and we're really, really close," Siemian said. "We're knocking on the door to being a special group, finishing those drives. We've had a good bit of success, which is encouraging and I'm excited to be a part of it."
The Bengals, who have only two sacks this season, will have to decide how they can best help themselves. Do they put an extra defender in the box and challenge Siemian to pass? Do they blitz more often and try to sack or unnerve him?
8) Denver's Pro Bowl receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas built up their stats and salaries in a passing offense with five-time MVP Manning at the helm and changing plays to target the defensive lineup, Now they are frustrated with a young QB and their paltry production so far.
Neither has a TD. They expressed displeasure with Denver's sputtering offense last Sunday after the Broncos' 34-20 win over Indianapolis, which they won on the strength of two defensive touchdowns.
Sanders had just three catches, all in the first quarter, and Thomas had five receptions but just one after halftime, not counting his 2-point conversion in the closing minutes. The Broncos piled up nearly 300 yards before halftime but they led by just a touchdown, then they had just three second-half possessions.
"It's about finishing the drive and putting up points," Thomas said. "You can have 400 yards but the turnovers come back to haunt you."
9) The Bengals' offense has just one TD for six red-zone trips without tight end Tyler Eifert, still working himself back in shape from an ankle injury in the Pro Bowl. Eifert practiced in pads for the first time this week, but the club listed him as doubtful for Sunday's game.