Commentary

Week 12: Bengals getting it right

Team with young talent making shrewd moves can't be called Bungles anymore

Originally Published: November 25, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Though the mystery of some of the NFL divisional races didn't change, several interesting things developed in Week 12.

First and foremost, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is looking like a genius for starting Colin Kaepernick against the New Orleans Saints. In a six-day span, Kaepernick shredded a Chicago Bears defense on Monday and then beat the Saints on the road.

As for the Saints, their hopes of a playoff season faded and could be completely ended Thursday with a loss in Atlanta.

The Seattle Seahawks suffered potential multiple losses Sunday. They blew a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost to Miami 24-21. If that wasn't bad enough, reports surfaced that cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman -- two Pro Bowl candidates -- could face four-game suspensions for violations of the performance-enhancing drug policy.

What looked to be a wild-card season could be in jeopardy.

And then there's the San Diego Chargers, who performed perhaps the ultimate choke. They gave up a fourth-and-29 in the final minutes of regulation and let the Baltimore Ravens tie the game and send it into overtime. The Ravens won 16-13 and put the Chargers at 4-7, all but out of the playoffs.

Little changed in divisional races. The Ravens lead by three in the AFC North. The Texans lead by three in the AFC South. The Broncos lead by four in the AFC West. The Patriots lead by three in the AFC East.

The two runaways in the NFC are the Falcons, who lead the Bucs by four, and the 49ers, who lead the Seahawks by 2½.

Here are some more top storylines from Week 12:

1. Bungles no more: Cincinnati's 34-10 victory over Carson Palmer and the Oakland Raiders exorcized the demons of past Bengals teams. For the longest time, the Bengals were the Bungles, a team filled with rejects, problems and locker room disharmony. Thanks to an improved scouting department and bold decisions by head coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are a young team with a bright future and a chance at this year's playoffs.

Years of frustration and dealing with knuckleheads led to Palmer's retirement from the Bengals last year and an eventual trade to the Raiders. Palmer may not have second thoughts about his decision, but his return had to leave him shaking his head. This Bengals team is young, spirited and together. It's also on a three-game winning streak and in striking position for an AFC wild-card spot.

During the bye week, the coaching staff and front office tried to evaluate what went wrong after a 3-1 start was followed by four losses. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said it best: "After the good start, we relaxed. We're so young as a team, so many have never been in this situation. We start 3-1 and we lost a couple of games and unraveled."

The coaching staff made the game plan easier and stressed fundamentals in practice. Suddenly, the Wednesday and Thursday practices got better and so did the team's performance. It helps that draft choices such as Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and others are good talents along with being good people.

Palmer doesn't have that type of talent in Oakland. He's struggling to get into a rhythm with wide receivers Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The defense can't tackle and can't cover. It's a bad team, as indicated by a 3-8 record. One of the keys Sunday was watching how the Raiders' poor defense adjusted to Dalton and the Bengals' offense.

"You could see they would not let No. 18 [Green] beat them, so everybody was standing around him," Lewis said. That opened up big running lanes for running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who broke a 49-yard touchdown and a 39-yard run that almost went for a score almost untouched. "The Law Firm" had a slow start for the Bengals, but things are getting better because of improved blocking by undrafted rookie center Trevor Robinson and rookie guard Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals had the balance of rushing for 221 yards and passing for a gross 210. They now play like a team.

Late in the game, Oakland defensive end Lamarr Houston took a run at Dalton that started a brawl that led to the ejections of Houston, Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and Whitworth. "I've got two contracts in my life," Whitworth said. "One with my wife and the other to protect Andy Dalton." This is what Palmer is missing from the trade.

2. Bold move that pays off: Let's give Harbaugh his due. The man apparently is brilliant. Going against conventional wisdom, San Francisco's coach opted to give Kaepernick the start instead of Alex Smith, who Saturday was cleared to play after a concussion sidelined him last week. Kaepernick outplayed Saints quarterback Drew Brees in a convincing 31-21 victory that added to Harbaugh's legacy as a coach. Kaepernick completed 16 of 25 passes for 231 yards and had a 7-yard touchdown run. Brees threw for 267 yards, was sacked five times and threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.

Harbaugh had two hot hands at his disposal. Smith was coming off a stretch in which he completed 25 of 27 passes. But you can see Kaepernick has the ability to make bigger plays and get more out of his attempts than Smith. He had a 40-yard completion to Mario Manningham and a 45-yarder to Delanie Walker. Because teams have to respect Kaepernick's running ability, defenses are vulnerable to long completions.

Another big thing was that Kaepernick wasn't sacked. Smith doesn't make turnovers, but he has been sacked 24 times this year. Harbaugh knows Smith is good enough to take the 49ers to a championship game. But Harbaugh is thinking Super Bowl, and Kaepernick may offer him the chance to win a championship game and return to New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeHenne
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesJacksonville quarterback Chad Henne is taking advantage of a season-ending injury to Blaine Gabbert.

3. Quarterback shuffle: Week 12 offered some interesting decisions at the quarterback position.

A damaged forearm and a left shoulder in need of surgery led to the Jaguars' decision to place Blaine Gabbert on injured reserve and go the rest of the season with Chad Henne. Henne wasn't good enough in Miami to save former coach Tony Sparano's job, but he may save coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Gene Smith in Jacksonville. Henne wasn't great Sunday, but he was good enough to beat the Tennessee Titans 24-19. He threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns and had a 108 quarterback rating. Mularkey said last week Henne was auditioning for a starting job in 2013. His impact is more important than that. He is giving the Jaguars a threat they didn't have in Gabbert, who dumped off short passes and rarely tried to go downfield.

Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel went with Brady Quinn, and the result was as bad as it had been with Matt Cassel. Quinn doesn't turn the ball over like Cassel does, but Quinn simply doesn't make enough plays. Despite getting 148 rushing yards in a 17-9 loss to the Denver Broncos, Quinn produced only 116 net passing yards and no touchdown drives. Unfortunately for Chiefs fans sick of their 1-10 start, they have to wait until next year for solutions.

And what else can you say about Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt's idea to start rookie Ryan Lindley over veteran John Skelton. Lindley is not ready for prime time. He threw two interceptions for touchdowns to St. Louis cornerback Janoris Jenkins in a 31-17 loss that extended the Cardinals' losing streak to seven games. Whisenhunt told people before the season Lindley could be a good one. He threw four picks against the Rams. Things were so bad Whisenhunt thought about benching him, but he didn't. He shouldn't have started Lindley in the first place. Terrible.

4. Steelers' playoff hopes hobbled: You could see the Steelers' desperation in their injury report. They sat out Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Troy Polamalu, Antonio Brown and Marcus Gilbert with hopes that maybe Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Brown could come back for their Week 13 game in Baltimore. For that to mean much, the Steelers needed to beat the Browns, which they do annually twice a year. Pittsburgh lost 20-14 in an embarrassing game that featured eight Steelers turnovers.

"That was an ugly performance," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "When you turn the ball over the way we did today, you are not going to beat anybody. That is just the reality of the National Football League. I am surprised it was that close given the turnover situation." The game was close because the Browns are too young on offense to take full advantage of the turnovers.

With losses to Baltimore and Cleveland, the Steelers are now 6-5 and falling out of the playoff race. Roethlisberger is angling toward next week to return from shoulder and rib injuries incurred during Week 10. The Steelers learned a lot of things Sunday. Charlie Batch might have been able to salvage a road win despite his age and throwing limitation, but can't do it with four running backs fumbling. It forced the Steelers to do things that aren't good for this offensive line.

Weeks ago, tackle Max Starks said the Steelers' line is at its best for run blocking when backs aren't rotated and balls are carried inside the tackles. "They were fumbling the ball," Tomlin said of the reason for rotating running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey. "We are going to play people that can secure the football. After everybody does it, obviously there aren't many choices left."

Batch wasn't much of a factor, either. He was 20-of-34 for 199 yards but couldn't get the ball downfield. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Batch was 2-for-11 with two picks on throws 10 yards downfield. With no downfield presence and backs who can't hold onto the ball, the Steelers are fumbling their way out of the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeRyan Succop
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaPlace-kicker Ryan Succop scored all of Kansas City's points in the Chiefs' 17-9 loss to Denver.

5. Three isn't enough: Even though 2012 is one of the greatest seasons for place-kickers, the Titans, Buccaneers and Chiefs should be kicking themselves for relying on too many field goal attempts.

No one should feel worse than the Bucs, who lost to the Falcons 24-23. The Bucs' defense came up with two turnovers inside the Falcons' 36. After a second-quarter interception of Matt Ryan, the Bucs drove to the Falcons' 4 but had to settle for a field goal. In the second half, the Bucs got a fumble at the Falcons' 31 and had a three-and-out. Getting only six points out of two turnovers in Atlanta territory was the difference between winning and losing. For the Bucs to beat the Falcons, they had to score touchdowns, and they knew that. The inability to get more than two touchdown drives is the reason they are now 6-5 and one week from elimination in the NFC South race.

Rob Bironas was 4-of-5 on field goal attempts for the Titans in their loss to the Jaguars. Coming into the game, the Titans were a middle-of-the-pack red zone team, getting touchdowns on 54 percent of their 24 chances. They had a touchdown and a field goal in their two trips into the red zone, but they settled for field goal kicks on four drives that ended between the 20 and 24. No wonder they lost. As for the Chiefs, maybe getting three field goals with Quinn at quarterback is about all they can do.


SHORT TAKES


The Dolphins' victory over the Seahawks can be attributed to the fourth-quarter play of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. "You need to win some games like that," Miami coach Joe Philbin said. "Any quarterback -- Ryan Tannehill certainly -- has to demonstrate the ability to do this." … How funny was it to watch the sprinkler system go off during the Dolphins-Seahawks game? Water was spraying everywhere, and the game had to be stopped. … Mike Holmgren stepped down as Cleveland president following the Browns' victory over the Steelers. He will meet with the media Monday. After that, we'll see if there will be a head-coaching opportunity in Dallas. … The NFL will review the Ndamukong Suh kick to the groin of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub starting Monday. Because of his past, there is a chance the Detroit defensive tackle could be suspended. … Dolphins left tackle Jake Long continues to struggle. He was beaten on a spin move for a sack by Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons. Long, in a contract year, has struggled a lot this season. … Bucs coach Greg Schiano came up with a nice trick play in which Mike Williams, a wide receiver, got the ball in the backfield and threw a pass to Vincent Jackson on a play that went for 28 yards. … The Bears beat the Vikings 28-10, but, wow, did they suffer injuries. "I normally don't write down injuries on a sheet, but we had so many I had to remember them all," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. Wide receiver Devin Hester had a concussion and halfback Matt Forte had an ankle injury. The already thin offensive line lost Chris Spencer and Lance Louis to knee injuries, and cornerback Charles Tillman hurt an ankle. All five players were unable to return to the game. With wide receiver Alshon Jeffery out following knee surgery, the Bears were down to Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett and Eric Weems as their only active and healthy wide receivers. … Despite Sunday's loss to Miami, Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was impressive. He had a streak of 16 consecutive completions in the game. … The three-sack performance by Bills defensive end Mario Williams shows he still has the skills. He had four other hits of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in Buffalo's 20-13 loss.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer