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Thursday, December 17, 2009
Updated: December 18, 3:04 PM ET
Tough test for emotional Bengals

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The most mature, focused Bengals team in ages faces yet another serious challenge this week.

Wide receiver Chris Henry died Thursday morning following a strange accident in which he fell out of a truck after an argument with his fiancée. Although Henry was out for the season with a broken forearm, his death will hit the Bengals hard emotionally.

Henry had a troubled career with the Bengals, including numerous off-the-field problems and a suspension. But he was popular among his teammates. Plus, he was talented. He was a tall, deep threat who reminded teammates of Randy Moss.

And the Bengals' offense hasn't been the same without him the past five games. Minus Henry's ability to stretch the field, the Bengals have had only five touchdown drives in their past 63 possessions. Carson Palmer hasn't thrown for more than 220 yards in a game, and three times, he's had less than 200 yards. The offense has averaged 16.4 points.

Earlier this season, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer lost his wife suddenly, and that hit the team hard. She was popular with the players because she would go to Friday practices with treats. Coach Marvin Lewis noted how distracted the team was on the Friday of the week she died and how bad practice was. He wasn't sure whether his players would be able to focus on a key game against Baltimore.

To his surprise, and to the surprise of Bengals fans, Cincinnati focused and beat the Ravens in Baltimore 17-14. Two days later the team attended the funeral of Zimmer's wife and the following Sunday played a flat game, losing 28-17 to the Houston Texans. Everyone understood that loss because of how much was taken from the Bengals emotionally.

There could be a similar effect in Sunday's game against the Chargers. The Bengals need a victory to keep alive their hopes of getting the No. 2 seed in the AFC and possibly a bye week in the playoffs. The AFC North is all but won because the Bengals have a two-game lead over the Ravens and hold the tiebreaker due to their season sweep, so it's a must-win only as far as playoff seeding.

Lewis faces a tough challenge in trying to keep the team focused. Injuries aren't helping his plight. Defensive tackle Domata Peko is out with a knee injury, making the Bengals more vulnerable to the run. The Bengals also are down two starting safeties, which will make it tough for them to contain Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

The Bengals already faced a daunting task in San Diego. Henry's death will further test their resolve.

Here are the rest of this weekend's top games (not including Thursday night's matchup between the Colts and Jaguars).

1. Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints: The Saints' quest for an unbeaten season takes a secondary role to the Cowboys in this Saturday night game. Sure, everyone is wondering whether the Saints can get to 16-0, but Dallas' December funk is the bigger story in this matchup. The Cowboys already have lost to the Giants and Chargers this month. This game will determine whether their playoff run is in serious jeopardy. A loss to the Saints could put them in a wild-card tie with the Giants if New York beats the Redskins on Monday night. Ultimately, the final NFC playoff spot will come down to the Giants and Cowboys. The Giants, by virtue of their season sweep of Dallas, hold the tiebreaker if the teams are even at the end of the regular season. The Saints are at home, and their defense plays more aggressively there because of the crowd. Plus, everyone keeps reminding the Cowboys about their poor December record. It's in their heads.

Charles Woodson
Enjoying the freedom to blitz, CB Charles Woodson is excelling in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.

2. Green Bay Packers at Pittsburgh Steelers: The Packers continue to be one of the league's better stories with their turnaround on defense. Dom Capers installed a 3-4 defense that gets better and better each week. In Week 14, he came up with a 1-5-5 pressure package on passing downs called "Psycho.'' Players loved it. Cornerback Charles Woodson, in the running for defensive player of the year, loves how Capers lets him blitz from the corner.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have fallen apart. Their secondary has collapsed. Coach Mike Tomlin is trying to figure out what personnel changes to make, but he doesn't have many options. We're seeing how important injured safety Troy Polamalu (knee) is to Pittsburgh's secondary because of his range and coverage skills. Cornerback Ike Taylor has been exposed in some coverage situations and is giving up big plays. William Gay hasn't stepped up as the starting replacement for Bryant McFadden, who left in free agency. At 6-7, the Steelers aren't thinking playoffs. They are thinking pride now.

3. San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles: The 49ers' Monday night victory over Arizona gave them a slight chance of getting a playoff berth, but odds of them winning this game are tough. Because the 49ers weren't considered playoff contenders before the season, the game is set for 1 p.m. ET, which is 10 a.m. for the 49ers' body clocks. West Coast teams always have a tough time getting off to a good start in early East Coast games, and the 49ers need a good start to have a chance to beat the Eagles.

The Eagles are a quick-strike offense and could put points on the board before the 49ers get settled into any kind of rhythm. Plus, the 49ers still are trying to figure out whether their offense is better out of normal formations or in the shotgun with Alex Smith throwing to pass-catchers in spread formation.

4. Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans: This is going to be a tough game for the Dolphins, who likely need to win out to make the playoffs. The Titans are at home and have won six of their past seven games. Even if Vince Young can't play because of his hamstring injury, the Titans are a good team with Kerry Collins at quarterback. They did go 13-3 last season with Collins. Although Collins started out 0-6 this season and lost his starting job, many of the early losses were close. Coach Jeff Fisher has fixed some of the problems on defense, and halfback Chris Johnson has been unstoppable on the ground and in receiving situations.

5. New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: Well, this is a road game the Patriots can't lose. Except for a 35-7 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London, the Patriots have lost five road games, and Tom Brady has struggled to find open receivers in the second halves of those games. The Bills should be an easy start. The Patriots have won 12 in a row against them. Even if Brady struggles, he isn't expected to be upstaged by Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills' starting quarterback. Expect a big day from Moss, who was criticized by Panthers cornerbacks for quitting on routes and catches in Week 14. Brady is close to Moss, and he will try to feed Moss as many passes as possible to get him back in the flow.

6. Atlanta Falcons at New York Jets: Can the Jets really be in the playoff hunt? A victory over Atlanta will give them hope, because they play the Colts in Week 16. It's very likely the Colts won't play many of their starters as they concentrate on getting ready for the playoffs. Mark Sanchez will start at quarterback despite his struggles. The question is whether Sanchez's knee injuries have healed to the point that he can beat the Falcons, who are expected to be without Matt Ryan.

7. New York Giants at Washington Redskins: Owner Daniel Snyder started the offseason early by accepting the resignation of Vinny Cerrato, his executive vice president, and hiring Bruce Allen as a replacement Thursday. Now we'll see how that affects his chances of landing Mike Shanahan or another big name as coach. Poor Jim Zorn. He might not admit it, but he knows he's gone at the end of the season. Still, his players continue to play hard for him. Snyder wouldn't mind if the Redskins played spoilers to the Giants and Cowboys over the next two weeks. The Giants hope to solve some of their defensive woes, but new playcaller Sherm Lewis has been able to get more out of Jason Campbell in the past few weeks. The pressure is on the Giants in this Monday night game.

8. Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers: Brett Favre is getting all the breaks this season. Cold weather has made it tough on him the past four years, causing his stats to fall with the temperature. For example, in his past 14 regular-season games in which the temperature was less than 40 degrees, Favre has 25 interceptions and a 56.8 completion percentage. Signing with the Vikings helped because they have a dome. When he looked at the schedule, his only cold games could be Sunday night against the Panthers and in Week 16 against the Bears. It's supposed to be a high of 45 and a low of 27 Sunday in Charlotte. That's not bad. Favre is having a magical season.

9. Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens: Having seen the Bears in Week 14, I don't think they can resolve their many problems in time to play a Ravens team that is trying to move toward a wild-card spot. The Bears' offense is a mess and getting messier. Jay Cutler continues to throw interceptions off his back foot. The running attack is nonexistent, and the offensive line is struggling. Ravens QB Joe Flacco's plan in this game is to try to be basic, run the ball against the Bears and then get ready for next week's trip to Pittsburgh.

10. Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos: The Broncos figure this game and their home finale against the Chiefs in Week 17 should put them on the path to a minimum of 10 wins and lock up at least a wild-card spot. The Broncos are a little banged up at running back, but that shouldn't be much of a problem against the Raiders. Lots of interesting things are brewing in Oakland. Tom Cable picked Charlie Frye to start at QB over JaMarcus Russell, showing how much Russell's stock has fallen in the organization. Russell is scheduled to make more than $9 million next year, so it doesn't appear he will be back.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.