Commentary

Move over, Steelers and Ravens

With two wins, Bengals could end aging division rivals' dominance

Originally Published: December 21, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

They are little brother. It is unavoidable. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are perennial playoff contenders with four Super Bowl appearances and three world titles between them since the turn of the century. The Cincinnati Bengals haven't made consecutive playoff appearances since 1981-82, and have lost their last nine games to the Ravens and Steelers combined.

But these next two weeks, the Bengals have an opportunity to change their little brother status. A young Cincinnati team with a promising quarterback, a star wide receiver and a creative and tactical defense improbably sits at 8-6 after starting the season 3-5. The Bengals can clinch at least a wild-card berth Sunday with a win at Pittsburgh. If that happens and the New York Giants win at Baltimore on Sunday, Cincinnati can win the division by beating the Ravens at home in Week 17.

Imagine that. The Bengals could be AFC North champs if they can beat the two teams that have dominated the division and them.

[+] EnlargeGeno Atkins
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliDefensive tackle Geno Atkins anchors the Bengals' sixth-ranked defense.

It is an interesting time in one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Forever it has been Baltimore chasing Pittsburgh for supremacy in the AFC North with the Bengals not much more than an afterthought. But the Steelers are aging. Can they draft well enough to avoid a significant step backward while Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime? Baltimore started the season 6-2 but has lost three straight games behind Joe Flacco, who is in the last year of his contract and hasn't played at a consistently high level this season. The defense, like Pittsburgh's, has aged.

Cleveland has a new owner, new chief executive officer and new president. It's a franchise in transition that probably will be looking for a new head coach and new general manager soon. The Browns have young talent, but the climb up has been frustratingly slow, and rebuilding remains very much a work in progress.

Then there are the Bengals. By reputation and history, it is hard to consider Cincinnati much of a threat to the Ravens' and Steelers' dominance. They haven't won a playoff game since 1990. Since division realignment in 2002, Cincinnati has won two AFC North titles while Pittsburgh has won five and Baltimore has won three. Since 2000, the Steelers are 12-6 in the playoffs, the Ravens 10-7 and the Bengals 0-3.

But the Bengals are back in contention this season. Calling Cincinnati's schedule soft is kind, but while the Steelers have lost four of their last six games and the Ravens have gone 3-3, the Bengals have won five of their last six. They've won their past three road games. They've got the best defensive tackle in football in Geno Atkins, a capable running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, an up-and-coming quarterback in Andy Dalton and a dynamic, game-changing wide receiver in A.J. Green.

Yes, Cincinnati has holes, but it also has a defense that quietly is sixth in the NFL in yards allowed and first in sacks. And it has a defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer who is creative with how and when he brings pressure.

These next two games are huge for Cincinnati. Dalton is 0-3 against in his career against Pittsburgh and has not played well in any of the three games. He is 0-3 against Baltimore. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said on a conference call with Cincinnati reporters this week that he doesn't buy into the idea that history plays a part in these series because "the cast of characters is routinely changing, not only for us but for them."

But history is a factor. Cincinnati knows it must take the next step. The Bengals are in the enviable position of controlling their playoff destiny. They need help from no one. And, they can win a division that looked all but won by the Ravens just a few weeks ago.

Beat big brother two weeks in a row. If Cincinnati can do that, given its recent lack of success against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, it would announce there are more than two teams capable of contending in the AFC North. There would be three.


INSIDE SLANT

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIf Adrian Peterson breaks the single-season rushing record and carries the Vikings to the playoffs, would the MVP award follow?

Adrian Peterson should win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, although he probably will not. The winner probably will be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady because in this era, voters, of which I am one, value the quarterback position more than any other. It is the most important position in football. You can't win without an elite one. So invariably, a quarterback takes home the league's most prestigious hardware, as one has 11 of the past 13 years.

But Peterson's case is different. Not only is he on pace to break Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old record of 2,105 rushing yards in a season, he is doing it on a surgically repaired knee. Peterson is the Vikings' offense. He is option Nos. 1, 2 and 3. In his last eight games, Peterson has gained 1,313 yards -- same as Houston running back Arian Foster's season total through 14 games -- for an average of 164.1 yards per game. He has nine 100-yard games and has topped 200 yards in two of his last three games.

Peterson needs 294 yards in the Vikings' last two games to top Dickerson's record. He will have to get it against Houston, which has the No. 5 rushing defense in the league, and Green Bay, which is No. 14. But given the numbers Peterson has put up, asking him to average 147 yards in the next two games doesn't seem like much. He has topped that total in five of his last six starts.

The other factor in Peterson's favor is the Vikings are 8-6 and very much in the playoff hunt. Peterson just might rush them there. If he does, he should run away with the MVP honor.


• • •

Tim Tebow deserved better. He deserved a chance.

For all of the headaches he has endured since the New York Jets traded for him back in March, Tebow deserved an opportunity to show he can still play quarterback in the NFL, that he's not a gimmick or a sideshow. Tebow didn't ask to be a personal punt protector or a slot back or a receiver. He didn't ask to be on the back page of the New York tabloids week after week. He just wanted an opportunity to play quarterback, which is why he took each directive from the Jets with a positive attitude and a smile.

And how was Tebow repaid? By being leapfrogged by a seventh-round draft pick who has been inactive for 13 of 14 games this season. Rex Ryan decided to bench Mark Sanchez -- and deservedly so -- and replace him with Greg McElroy. Why? Just because.

Tebow has 16 career starts on his résumé and a winning record. He won a playoff game for the Denver Broncos last season. He is a horrible practice player but a proven winner. Tebow deserved an opportunity to show the rest of the NFL that he is a viable starter in this league. For whatever reason -- perhaps fear of being proved wrong -- Ryan decided otherwise.


• • •

Good thing the Bears are playing at Arizona, and not in Chicago, on Sunday, or they might really hear it from the fans.

This week, linebacker Brian Urlacher said he doesn't care about the fans or the media, and Lance Briggs followed that up by saying no team gets booed more at home than the Bears. Oh really? Todd Herremans, an offensive lineman for Philadelphia for the last eight years, retweeted a story about Briggs' comments and said, "Hmmm." Players in Baltimore and New York probably thought the same thing.

What are Bears fans supposed to do? Applaud their team's epic collapse? Chicago started 7-1 but has lost five of its last six games and averaged 11.4 points in losses to Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. Facing teams that are either going to the playoffs or in playoff contention, the Bears couldn't win. Of Chicago's eight wins, only three came against teams that now have winning records, and one was against Indianapolis in Andrew Luck's NFL debut.

Bears fans expected their team to make a Super Bowl run. Now they are left hoping that the team wins out on the road against Arizona and Detroit and gets help from other playoff-contending teams to make the postseason. It is no wonder fans aren't applauding.


• • •

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Derick E. Hingle/USA Today SportsNot everybody has been surprised by Colin Kaepernick's success.

Aldon Smith didn't mince words Sunday night after Colin Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes to help San Francisco beat New England.

"I told everybody from the beginning, Kaep's the truth," the 49ers outside linebacker said. "Everybody wants to be surprised and everything, but the kid's good. Accept it and keep expecting good things from him."

Smith is right. Over the last five weeks, Kaepernick ranks third in the NFL in Total QBR with an 81.3 rating. In that span, only Seattle's Russell Wilson (90.4) and Carolina's Cam Newton (83.1) have been better.

This week, Kaepernick will face a Seattle defense that is second to San Francisco in total points allowed (219), third in total defense (303.9 yards allowed) and third against the pass (197.6 yards allowed).


• • •

It sounds like Chuck Pagano could return to work Monday. It would be an amazing lift for the Indianapolis Colts, who can clinch a playoff spot with a win Sunday at Kansas City.

The Colts' transformation from a two-win team in 2011 to one on the verge of making the postseason has been nothing short of remarkable, particularly considering that they've done it while their head coach has battled leukemia. With one more win, Indianapolis would join the 2008 Miami Dolphins as the only teams in NFL history to win at least 10 games a year after losing at least 14.


ALL-22


In Week 7, Seattle lost to San Francisco 13-6 in a game which Wilson completed just nine of 23 passes for 122 yards and an interception. He was 0-for-5 on passes of 20 or more yards even though he ranks second in the NFL with eight touchdown passes of 20 or more yards this season.

In the seven games since that loss to the 49ers, Seattle is 5-2 and Wilson has thrown 13 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. So what does the film show about the rookie? Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup," said that Seattle has expanded its offense in large part because Wilson has shown he can handle it.

"Now there's more volume in their offense, more deception in their offense with read-option principles," Cosell said. "Because they're a running team that lines up with run personnel in normal down and distance, they end up getting single high-safety looks with just one deep safety, which means you get one-on-one [coverage] outside with their receivers. They're aggressive. They're not a dink-and-dunk team, and Wilson is a very good deep-ball thrower. He's willing to make the throws, and he's accurate.

"The other thing I think about Wilson is when he moves, he always strikes me as moving with a clearly defined purpose. He may move in reaction to pressure, but there's never a frenetic, chaotic look to his movement. He moves with a very clear sense of what's happening next, and he's always looking to throw. The run is truly the last resort. He does not necessarily move to run. He moves to find a better spot to throw."

Cosell said he expects the 49ers to play man coverage -- as they typically do -- but use free safety Dashon Goldson in a "lurk position" to keep an eye on Wilson when he runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers have allowed only one touchdown on throws more than 20 yards downfield this season, best in the NFL.


STATS & INFO


Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson needs 182 receiving yards in the Lions' remaining games against Atlanta and Chicago to break Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 yards set in the 1995 season. Johnson has 10 games with at least 100 yards receiving this season, and if he catches 10 passes Saturday night against the Falcons he will become the first player in NFL history with four consecutive 10-catch performances.

But Johnson has not excelled in the end zone. Johnson has been targeted 14 times in the end zone this season but has only caught two of those passes (14.3 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of players with 10 or more end zone targets, only Miami wide receiver Brian Hartline (1-of-12 for 8.3 percent) has caught a lower percentage. Cincinnati's Green (18 end zone targets, seven receptions) leads the league in end zone targets and is tied with Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall (17 targets), New England tight end Rob Gronkowski (13 targets), Green Bay wide receiver James Jones (12 targets) and Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez (10 targets) for most touchdowns when targeted in the end zone.


#theytweetedit



Aren't we all? On Tuesday, Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz visited with the family of Jack Pinto, one of the children killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Jack was buried Monday in a No. 80 Cruz jersey, and on Sunday Cruz dedicated the Giants' game against Atlanta to Jack. Cruz gets it. He is thoughtful and caring and wise. He reportedly spent nearly three hours with the Pinto family on the Giants' day off. It was a heartfelt, sincere gesture by one of the most stand-up players in the NFL.



According to ESPNNewYork.com's Jane McManus, Ryan wasn't particularly forthcoming during a Tuesday conference call when asked by reporters about his decision to bench Sanchez, leapfrog Tebow and promote third-string quarterback McElroy. Ryan gave few answers, maybe because there aren't any good ones.



The Broncos are the most complete team in the AFC. The most complete team in the NFC? That would be the 49ers, who rank 11th in the NFL in total offense (No. 2 in rushing offense) and second in total defense.


PICK 'EM


All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.

Atlanta (12-2) at Detroit (4-10), 8:30 p.m. Saturday The Falcons can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win. They should. Falcons 35, Lions 23.


Oakland (4-10) at Carolina (5-9), 1 p.m. The Panthers, winners of three of their last four, are trying to finish strong and build toward 2013. Panthers 20, Raiders 12.


Buffalo (5-9) at Miami (6-8), 1 p.m. The Bills are out of playoff contention. Miami needs a win and help or it will be out, too. Dolphins 17, Bills 10.


Cincinnati (8-6) at Pittsburgh (7-7), 1 p.m. A huge game for both teams. The Bengals can clinch a playoff berth with a win, but they have lost five straight to Pittsburgh. Steelers 24, Bengals 21.


New England (10-4) at Jacksonville (2-12), 1 p.m. How best to get over a crushing loss to San Francisco? By facing the dreadful Jaguars, of course. Patriots 49, Jaguars 10.


Indianapolis (9-5) at Kansas City (2-12), 1 p.m. Pagano is on the verge of returning. Andrew Luck is on the verge of making history. What a season for Indianapolis. Colts 24, Chiefs 6.


New Orleans (6-8) at Dallas (8-6), 1 p.m. Dallas has won five of its past six games but has lost six of its past seven against New Orleans. Saints 35, Cowboys 27.


Washington (8-6) at Philadelphia (4-10), 1 p.m. RG III. RG III. RG III. Redskins 31, Eagles 17.


St. Louis (6-7-1) at Tampa Bay (6-8), 1 p.m. Remember how the Buccaneers' season ended last year? Rinse, repeat. Rams 21, Bucs 10.


San Diego (5-9) at New York Jets (6-8), 1 p.m. The Mess Bowl. Aside from Philadelphia, there aren't two more disappointing teams. Jets 14, Chargers 13.


Tennessee (5-9) at Green Bay (10-4), 1 p.m. The Packers have won eight of their past nine. They are on a roll, right where we thought they'd be. Packers 28, Titans 17.


Minnesota (8-6) at Houston (12-2), 1 p.m. Peterson has gained 1,313 rushing yards in the past eight games, but will face a Texans defense that ranks fifth in the NFL against the run. Texans 30, Vikings 20.


Cleveland (5-9) at Denver (11-3), 4:05 p.m. The last time Denver had a nine-game winning streak, John Elway was the quarterback and the Broncos ended up winning the Super Bowl. Broncos 28, Browns 20.


Chicago (8-6) at Arizona (5-9), 4:25 p.m. It feels like 2011 all over again for the Bears. They aren't who we thought they were. Cardinals 24, Bears 21.


New York Giants (8-6) at Baltimore (9-5), 4:25 p.m. Do either of these teams look like they are poised for a Super Bowl run? Nope. Ravens 21, Giants 20.


San Francisco (10-3-1) at Seattle (9-5), 8:20 p.m. After an emotional win at New England, this could be a trap game for San Francisco. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home this season. Seahawks 35, 49ers 34.


Last week: 9-6. Season: 135-73.


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