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Backup QBs Browning and Minshew in spotlight as Bengals host Colts in key AFC matchup

CINCINNATI (AP) — When quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season because of a wrist injury amid a three-game skid, the Bengals playoff hopes seemed to be fading fast.

But Jake Browning had something to say about that.

The backup quarterback, in just his second NFL start, had a game to remember Monday night. Browning, who'd spent most of his pro career on practice squads, was 32 for 37 for 354 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score in the 34-31 win over Jacksonville.

Not only did it even the Bengals' record at 6-6, it gave them a huge shot of confidence. Browning showed he could win in the NFL. And with AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Cleveland losing last week, the playoff window stayed open for Cincinnati with five games left.

“There's still plenty on the line for us," Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said. “We're in a position, just the way things are shaking out around the league, that we keep preaching about controlling our own destiny.”

The Bengals will find out if Browning can perform consistently when they host Indianapolis (7-5) on Sunday. The Colts have won four straight and are one game behind the first-place Jaguars in the AFC South. They're also winning with a backup quarterback, Gardner Minshew, who stepped in and played well after Anthony Richardson was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury in October.

The Colts are also coming off an overtime win, 31-28 over Tennessee last week.

“I think the biggest thing is just confidence right now,” Minshew said. "Everybody is feeling it, everybody is playing together, trusting each other. I think you saw all the phases coming to life at different times last week. Just starting to feel like we’re starting to put our best ball together and that’s how it should be this time of year.”

STEWART IS BACK

The Colts will get their best run stopper, defensive tackle Grover Stewart, back Sunday. He was suspended the past six games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy.

How critical is Stewart to Indy’s defense?

With Stewart, the Colts held four of their first six opponents to 105 yards rushing or fewer. Without him, they gave up 125 yards in all six games and 138 or more in five of six. He’s eager to get back.

“These last six weeks have been hard for me sitting at home, watching the guys go out there each and every week, fight and do their job,” Stewart said. “It was hard just watching them, knowing I couldn’t be out there helping them.”

RUN GAME GAINING GROUND

The run game has been a problem for the Bengals all season, but in Monday's win over the Jaguars there were positive signs. Joe Mixon rushed for 66 yards and powered in for two touchdowns. Rookie Chase Brown rushed for another 61 yards on nine carries. Coming into the game, Brown, a fifth-round pick from Illinois, had just two carries for 6 yards. Browning also ran for 22 yards and a touchdown.

HOMECOMING FOR PIERCE

Receiver Alec Pierce made the short commute from Cincinnati to Indianapolis after he was drafted by the Colts in 2022. This week, he’ll make the reverse commute.

No, it’s not the first time the Cincinnati Bearcat will be playing inside Paycor Stadium (formerly Paul Brown Stadium) — just the first time in the visiting locker room.

“I played in the Bengals stadium in college a couple times, so it’s going to be cool to go back there and play as a pro,” he said.

The timing couldn’t be better for Piece, who set up Indy’s overtime TD with a 55-yard reception last weekend and celebrated the first 100-yard game of his pro career.

TAYLOR'S STATUS

When 2021 NFL rushing champion Jonathan Taylor had surgery on his right thumb last week, most expected him to miss at least three weeks.

On Wednesday, though, coach Shane Steichen declined to rule out Taylor for the Bengals game.

“We’ll see,” Steichen said after first acknowledging there’s no timeline for Taylor’s return.

Steichen has run his kicking teams on and off the field several times this season, in hopes of at least forcing opponents to call timeouts. For Wednesday’s walkthrough, the Colts estimated Taylor’s practice status would have been out.

FAMILIAR FACES AT QB

Browning and Minshew are facing off for the first time since 2018. Browning was the star QB for Washington and Minshew led Washington State in the Apple Cup game won 28-15 by the Huskies.

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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed.

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AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

Mitch Stacy, The Associated Press