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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (2-8) at N.Y. Jets (8-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Seems a lot longer than 10 months, doesn't it?
Just after the calendar turned from 2009 to 2010 last winter, the New York Jets visited the Cincinnati Bengals for round one of the AFC Playoffs in a matchup that for all intents and purposes looked like it might occur again come postseason time this January.
The high-flying Bengals were coming off an unbeaten record in their games against the always-rugged AFC North Division, while the Jets were just beginning a Cinderella playoff run that ultimately got them within 30 minutes of an unlikely trip to Miami for the Super Bowl.
But when these teams meet up after holiday dinner this Thursday in northern New Jersey, the agendas will differ.
Defending AFC North champion Cincinnati has endured a 2010 season it'd rather forget, plummeting quickly from a 2-1 start with seven consecutive losses and already looking to next year while head coach Marvin Lewis tries to survive amid a locker room filled with abrasiveness and a training room filled with injuries.
Defensive tackle Tank Johnson went on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday with a knee problem, becoming the third Bengals player to be shelved this week -- joining safety Chris Crocker and defensive end Frostee Rucker.
The team's current skid was extended this past Sunday against Buffalo, when the Bengals saw a 17-point halftime lead against a one-win foe become an embarrassing 49-31 loss after the Bills scored 35 unanswered points in front of 55,654 dumbfounded fans alongside the Ohio River.
"I see a future here. For everybody involved, I want this thing," said Lewis, whose contract expires at the end of the season, after the game. "I haven't got done what I came here to do, and I failed them. But we're still doing it, and we're going to keep on doing it and just keep working at it.
"This has not been the season we all wanted, but it is where we are right now. I think we continue. My guys coach very hard, and that's not going to change."
Discussions on a contract extension for Lewis have not progressed substantially, leaving some to believe his fate will match that of predecessor Dick LeBeau, whose deal was not renewed at the end of 2002.
Cincinnati won eight or more games in each of Lewis' first four seasons, but followed up with seven and four wins in 2007 and 2008, respectively, before the resurgence last year. Sam Wyche is the franchise's all-time wins leader with 61, while Lewis has 58.
"Our margin for error is so slight right now that every little mistake we have ends up being a huge difference for us," Lewis said. "We have to work. We have to play physically stronger. I think that's important.
"I think guys know people have an eye open on them. They have one eye peeled watching them. We have six football games left. We still can -- this season is not where we wanted it to be -- but we can end this season feeling, at least feeling, at least finishing it the right way."
As for the Jets, finishing has been their specialty as of late.
New York added yet another heart-stopper to an already cardiac-laden 2010 schedule last Sunday, when they drove the length of the field with no timeouts remaining in the final minute to defeat Houston, 30-27, on home turf at New Meadowlands Stadium.
Head coach Rex Ryan and Co. were coming off consecutive road overtime wins at Detroit and Cleveland and improved to 8-2 overall, maintaining a share of both first place in the AFC East and the top spot in the conference with their perennial rivals from the northern reaches of the Atlantic corridor, the New England Patriots.
The nail-biting wins have many deriding the team, labeling it more lucky than good.
"I hope I have to explain 9-2. That would be fine with me," Ryan said earlier this week. "It really would be. When it�s all said and done, we know how it�s added up at the end of the year.
"It's based on wins and losses and nobody cares about anything else. They don't care if you have injuries. They don't care if it�s a home game, road game or if you're wearing green-on-green. It makes no difference. They're going to count it all the same."
The Jets own a 14-7 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with Cincinnati and have prevailed in the past two non-playoff matchups between the clubs, the most recent being a 37-0 shellacking at the Meadowlands in the 2009 finale. That win clinched a playoff berth for New York and set up a rematch with the Bengals in Cincinnati the following week. The Bengals have lost seven of their last eight meetings with the Jets, with the lone win over that span a 38-31 home verdict in 2007, as well as eight in a row as the visitor. Cincinnati last beat the Jets on the road back in 1981, a 31-30 decision at Shea Stadium.
As previously noted, New York also ended Cincinnati's 2009 season with a 24-14 besting at Paul Brown Stadium in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs, and dealt the Bengals a 44-17 defeat in the opening round of the 1982 postseason as well.
Including last season's playoff loss, Lewis is 1-4 lifetime against the Jets, while Ryan is 2-0 in head-to-head encounters with both Lewis and the Bengals. Lewis and Ryan were both members of the Baltimore Ravens staff from 1999-2001, with each earning a Super Bowl ring as part of that organization's 2000 championship squad.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati's offense ranks 14th in the NFL with an average of 346.2 yards per game, but its 22 turnovers haven't helped matters much and the team is coming off a contest where it gave the ball away three more times. The primary culprit of the Bengals' turnover woes is quarterback Carson Palmer, whose numbers are deceiving when one accounts for his 13 interceptions in 10 games. He's still completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 2,625 yards and 18 touchdowns, but his miscues are part of the reason the 2010 campaign has been a failure thus far. Palmer is playing the right team to cure his turnover troubles, however, as the Jets are at the lower end of the league with just five interceptions. Additionally, the Bengals still sport one of the more productive wide receiving tandems in Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. The duo has combined for 1,484 yards and 12 touchdowns and need to be accounted for at all times. Palmer may also be able to remain upright, as the Bengals have yielded only 19 sacks this season, which is slightly above average.
The Jets, meanwhile, have recorded only 21 sacks, though it's still more than twice the number logged by the Bengals (10) this season. New York gives up an average of 220 yards through the air -- only 16th in the NFL -- and has been gashed at times by teams with more than one legitimate receiving threat. The Jets' run defense is by far its strength, having up just 90.3 rushing yards per game that is fifth-best among the 32 teams and less than three yards away from third overall.
Bengals running back Cedric Benson, who ran for a career-high 1,251 yards in just 13 games last season, reemerged last week to go for 124 yards against the Bills. He's also fumbled five times -- losing four -- after coughing up the ball only once in all of 2009.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Sunday's win gave quarterback Mark Sanchez a 16-9 mark through his first 25 starts as a Jet, tying him with Chad Pennington for the second-best record by a signal-caller over that period in franchise history, trailing only Vinny Testaverde's 19-6 run from 1998-2000. New York is 7-0 this season when Sanchez has at least one touchdown pass. Veteran running back LaDainian Tomlinson played in career game No. 151 last week and now has 17,452 scrimmage yards, the third-most of any player at that stage of a career. Tomlinson leads all AFC running backs in 2010 with 43 receptions as well, having caught seven balls from Sanchez in the rally against Houston. Among the traditional air targets, wide receiver Braylon Edwards is averaging more than 18 yards per reception this year and hauled in a 42-yard throw from Sanchez one play before counterpart Santonio Holmes grabbed the game-winning touchdown pass last week. Tight end Dustin Keller is second in the AFC and fourth in the league with 479 receiving yards from his position. No. 3 wideout Jerricho Cotchery missed last week with a groin injury and is questionable for Thursday.
The Bengals are 18th in the league with a 341.3 yards per game clip against them for the season, while the scoring barrage by the Bills bumped the points per game average to 26.2, just 26th-best in the league. Both passers and runners have thrived against them, with Cincinnati ranking 23rd against the run (118.3 ypg) and 18th against the pass (223.0 ypg). The Jets' rate of 145.9 rushing yards per game is fourth in the NFL. Linebacker Dhani Jones leads the team with 81 tackles, including 59 solo stops, while the now-unavailable Crocker had a team-best two sacks. Cornerback Leon Hall has four interceptions, including one with a season-best 22-yard return.
Ignoring the records of the teams involved, the matchups here will dictate the big numbers. The Jets figure to run up some yardage against a porous Cincinnati defense, though it remains to be seen how much backup running back Shonn Greene will be trusted after a critical fumble last week. Edwards and Holmes were clutch big-play guys against Houston and could thrive against a decimated secondary here. For the Bengals, Benson's value may be diminished, but either Ochocinco or Owens should be positioned for a nice evening. The New York defense is worthwhile, too, especially against a Bengals offense prone to giving things away.
They're lucky. They're good. They're both. It doesn't seem to matter from week to week to the Jets, who in reality have dominated much of the play in the last two weeks before faltering enough to let their foes back in. Here, chances are the Bengals, going on the road for the holiday and playing out the string in a lost season, won't be quite so gritty if they trail early on. Look for New York to seize the pace early, get a 10-point lead and smother whatever resolve remains in their opponent by the second half.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 24, Bengals 14
11/23 15:25:42 ET
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