Dalton can't go it alone against Ravens
Bengals rookie quarterback needs WR Green to play if he's going to succeed
The Steelers also added one other observation: Dalton needs A.J. Green to play if he's going to succeed. The Dalton-Green rookie combo already has combined for 41 catches, 635 yards and six touchdowns. Green is to Dalton what Plaxico Burress was to Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning: a tall pass-catcher who could turn high, bad throws into completions. The only difference: Green is faster than Burress.
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That's why this week's injury report on Green's knee is critical in determining how the Bengals will do against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Green didn't suffer any structural damage to the knee making a touchdown catch in double coverage Sunday, but he may not be able to play. A bone bruise in the knee limits his chances of healing quickly enough to be on the field.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, this season, 16 of Dalton's 28 completions on passes that traveled 11 or more yards downfield have been to Green. Only 14 of his 38 attempts on passes that long went to other receivers. Without Green, Dalton may be forced to dink and dunk with short throws, which would play into the hands of the Ravens' defense.
Further complicating things is the season-ending Achilles injury to cornerback Leon Hall. One of the reasons Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 10-6 against the Ravens is because he had cornerbacks who can match up in man coverage against the Ravens and limit their passing attack. Adam Jones is trying to come back from a hamstring injury and Lewis needs him because all he has is Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings to match up against Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith.
After a 6-2 start, the Bengals need to show how they stack up against the Steelers and Ravens if they are going to be serious playoff contenders. Despite losing to the Steelers last week, the Bengals got favorable reviews. They head into Baltimore hoping the injuries won't hurt them too much.
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2. Here come the Cowboys: While the Giants are in the tough part of their schedule, the Cowboys have entered the soft portion of theirs. Sandwiched around a Thanksgiving Day game against the Dolphins, the Cowboys play the Redskins and Cardinals. Normally, Sunday's trip to FedEx Field would be a struggle. But the Redskins have the look of a team that might not win another game down the stretch. In the past five weeks, the Redskins have put six players on the injured reserve list. Their offense has run out of talent, and things are so bad, coach Mike Shanahan had to go back to Rex Grossman as his quarterback. Grossman was benched when he threw four interceptions against the Eagles in Week 6. Shanahan gave John Beck the job, but that didn't seem to go over well with the players, who wanted Grossman. But Grossman was back to being Grossman on Sunday, when he threw two interceptions in a loss to the Dolphins. He has 11 interceptions in six games.
3. Desperation time for the Chargers: Since 1990, 15 teams with 3-6 or 4-5 records rebounded to make the playoffs. The Chargers (4-5) have done that three times (1992, 1995 and 2008). As you study their injury list, though, doubts creep into your mind about their chances. The Chargers lost guard Kris Dielman for the season and three more blockers -- Marcus McNeill (neck), Louis Vasquez (ankle) and Tyronne Green (hand) -- may miss Sunday's game against the Bears. General manager A.J. Smith signed two offensive linemen off the street this week and coach Norv Turner may be forced to use them. Wide receiver Malcom Floyd is out with a hip injury and linebacker Shaun Phillips is trying to shake a foot injury. Chances of winning a wild-card spot are remote, so the Chargers have to stay close to the Raiders, whom they trail by a game. Meanwhile, the Bears have found their groove. Jay Cutler likes having some extra blockers and getting the chance to throw some quicker passes, and Bears coach Lovie Smith is dialing up the right plays for the defense.
5. To stay in the AFC South race, the Titans have to win the NFC South: The Tennessee Titans trail the Houston Texans by a game and a half in the AFC South, but their hopes brightened this week when the Texans lost quarterback Matt Schaub to a foot injury. The Titans' immediate hopes for the playoffs are nestled in a schedule that includes four NFC South games in five weeks. That slate started last week with a 30-3 win over the Carolina Panthers. On Sunday, the Titans travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons, and next week they host the Bucs. The Falcons are still reeling from their loss to the Saints last week, when Mike Smith's decision to go for it on fourth down in Atlanta territory led to an easy Saints field goal in overtime. For the Titans to have some hope, they need to feed running back Chris Johnson the football. Johnson had 130 yards last week against the Panthers, but most of them came in the fourth quarter, when the game was decided. Johnson is doing a better job of getting outside the tackles. In the past two weeks, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Johnson had 14 runs for a 5.7-yard average outside the tackles. In the first seven games, he had 31 attempts -- fewer than five a game -- and a 2.5-yard average.
6. Thumbs down to the Bucs: At 4-5, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches and players admit they have underachieved and played poorly. Quarterback Josh Freeman confessed his throwing hasn't been as accurate recently because of a thumb injury. Whether it's the thumb or a lack of production from his pass-catchers, Freeman's level of play has deteriorated. His yards per attempt has dropped from 7.3 to 6.4, and he has thrown 13 interceptions. There has been an even bigger drop-off on defense, where the Bucs rank 31st in the league, giving up 401 yards a game. Now the defense that can't stop anyone has to face a Green Bay Packers offense that has been unstoppable. This figures to be a long day for coach Raheem Morris and his Bucs.
7. Raiders pondering the playoffs: Carson Palmer and the Raiders had a nice 10-day break after last Thursday's win over the Chargers that gave them the lead in the AFC West. The break gave Palmer more time to learn coach Hue Jackson's offense. Unfortunately for the Raiders, it didn't shorten the injury list. The Raiders have 13 players on the injury report and head into Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings expecting to be without halfback Darren McFadden, wide receiver Jacoby Ford and cornerback Chris Johnson. At 2-7, the Vikings now realize they are going to have to rebuild their roster. They like what they see in quarterback Christian Ponder, but Father Time has caught up to their defense, and rebuilding must be done on the offensive line and in the receiving corps.
9. Young guns weekend: Rookie quarterbacks Cam Newton of the Panthers and Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars hit the road Sunday hoping to get victories. Newton has the tougher assignment. He'll have to battle it out with the Lions' Matthew Stafford in a passing shootout. Gabbert faces Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns, an underachieving offense averaging 14.6 points a game, only 1.8 points more than the Jaguars. Don't expect many offensive touchdowns in that game. The Panthers have lost their past 11 road games. The problem with this team has been closing games. They have been outscored by 31 points in the fourth quarter.
10. Settling the NFC West: At 8-1, the 49ers have all but won the NFC West. The 49ers can pretty much put the final touches on winning the division if they beat the Cardinals in San Francisco on Sunday. The 49ers' magic number is three, so a win would all but wrap up the division. The Cardinals figure to continue with John Skelton as their quarterback because Kevin Kolb is still limping because of a turf toe injury and a midfoot sprain. In the other NFC West game, the Seahawks and Rams face each other in the NFL's version of "Survivor." The Rams lost cornerback Al Harris to a torn ACL and now have lost their top four corners for the season. In a matter of a few days, the Seahawks lost the right side of their offensive line -- rookies John Moffitt and James Carpenter -- to knee injuries. Ouch.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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