NFL Preview - Kansas City (3-11) at Cincinnati (9-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It has been an emotional two weeks for the Cincinnati Bengals, to say the least, after two tough road games and the death of a teammate. The team tries to move on once again and finally clinch the AFC North in this Sunday's matchup with the lowly Kansas City Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium, where Bengals running back Larry Johnson's will play his first game against his old team.
If not for the death of wide receiver Chris Henry, who passed away on December 17 from injuries sustained after falling out of the back of a pickup truck the day before, the biggest story around Cincinnati would be the team's inability to clinch its second division title in 19 years in each of the last two weeks.
Consecutive road losses to Minnesota (30-10) and San Diego (27-24) have denied Cincinnati its first division crown since 2005, but one has to figure the club was emotionally drained last weekend due to Henry's death. However, the Bengals will need to get back to work this weekend at home versus the 3-11 Chiefs.
Cincinnati, which traveled to New Orleans on Tuesday for Henry's funeral, will have to find a way to get its defense back on track. The 57 points the Bengals have allowed over the past two weeks are the most they have given up in consecutive games this season. The 30 points allowed to the Vikings was a season high, while the Chargers' 27 was the third most in a single game against the Bengals in 2009.
Still, at 9-5 with a perfect 6-0 division record, the Bengals need just one win -- either this weekend or in Week 17 at the New York Jets -- to claim the AFC North crown. They would also win the division with Baltimore's next loss, though the Ravens haven't helped Cincinnati by winning consecutive games during the Bengals' two-game slide.
The Bengals' pass defense struggled versus the Chargers' Philip Rivers, who threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns, but their offense did rally from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to tie the game on Shayne Graham's 34-yard field goal. However, San Diego's Nate Kaeding drilled a 52-yard field goal with three ticks left to hand the Bengals a loss.
One week after throwing for a season-low 94 yards in a loss to Minnesota, quarterback Carson Palmer posted a season-high 314 passing yards and two touchdowns, one of which that was caught by Chad Ochocinco. The usually- flamboyant wideout honored Henry after the 49-yard score by dropping to his knees and looking up towards the sky.
Johnson, who backs up starter Cedric Benson in Cincinnati, will also carry a bit of extra emotion this weekend as he faces the Chiefs for the first time since they cut him on November 9. Johnson's release followed a suspension for posting anti-gay slurs on his Twitter account while also insulting head coach Todd Haley on the Web site.
Taken 27th overall in the 2003 draft by the Chiefs, Johnson made two Pro Bowls while with Kansas City and rushed for over 6,000 yards, but was involved in numerous off-the-field incidents.
Johnson and the Bengals host a Chiefs club that has lost four straight since back-to-back wins over Oakland and Pittsburgh. That skid includes an 0-3 mark on the team's final homestand of the season, a residency in which Kansas City was outscored 101-57 to post a 1-7 record at Arrowhead Stadium this year.
The Chiefs were involved in a shootout on Sunday, losing 41-34 to the Cleveland Browns. Running back Jamaal Charles led Kansas City with a career- high 154 rushing yards and a touchdown, but Cleveland running back Jerome Harrison countered with a franchise-record 286 yards to go along with three touchdowns.
Matt Cassel threw for a season-high 331 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, in which the Chiefs' special teams unit allowed Browns return man Joshua Cribbs to take a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns.
Kansas City, which allowed 796 rushing yards on the homestand, also failed to sell out Arrowhead Stadium for the first time since 1990.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, meanwhile, still needs one more win to pass Paul Brown's 55 victories for second-most in team history.
Kansas City owns a 13-12 advantage in its all-time series against Cincinnati, but was a 16-6 road loser when the teams met in Week 17 of last season. That game marked the final contest in Herm Edwards' three-season tenure as head coach. The Chiefs won the previous meeting, taking a 27-20 home decision in 2007. Kansas City is 0-3 in Cincinnati since last winning there in 1984.
Lewis is 3-2 in his career against Kansas City, while Haley will be meeting both Lewis and Cincinnati for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
With an eye towards 2010, the Chiefs might at least come out of this season knowing who their starting running back will be. Charles (759 rushing yards, 6 total TD) has scored a touchdown in six straight games -- five rushing and one receiving -- and is averaging 91.9 yards per game in seven starts since taking over for Johnson. Cassel (2537 passing yards, 15 TD, 13 INT), meanwhile, has developed chemistry with wide receiver Chris Chambers, who had five catches for 114 yards with a score in Sunday's loss. Chambers (28 receptions, 4 TD with KC) began the season with the Chargers before being claimed off waivers by the Chiefs on November 3. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (37 receptions, 4 TD) returned from a four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy last week and made four catches for 56 yards, while wide receiver Mark Bradley, who was released on Tuesday, added three catches for 52 yards with a fourth-quarter touchdown grab. Cassel was sacked just once on Sunday, even though starting left guard Brian Waters missed the game with a hamstring injury that has him questionable for this tilt.
The Chiefs' 34 points last weekend were a season-high, but this weekend they face a Bengals team that still ranks third in the league in scoring defense (17.4 points per game) despite the high totals allowed the last two weeks. They also hold the league's third-best run defense at 85.2 yards per game, which could spell trouble for Charles. Cincinnati limited San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson to 59 yards on 16 carries last Sunday, although he caught four passes for 58 yards. There will be even less room for Charles to run if 325-pound defensive tackle Domata Peko (23 tackles) can return from a knee injury that has held him out the last two weeks. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe (79 tackles, 2 sacks) led the Bengals with 12 tackles versus the Chargers, while linebacker Dhani Jones (98 tackles, 3.5 sacks) added eight. Linebacker Keith Rivers (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) added a sack and had one of the Bengals' two interceptions on the day, with cornerback Johnathan Joseph (60 tackles, 6 INT) grabbing the other.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati was able to get its 21st-ranked passing offense (197.1 ypg) on track last weekend, but did so at the expense of the running game. Benson (1118 rushing yards, 6 TD) was held to just 53 yards on 15 carries, while Johnson (155 rushing yards with CIN) chipped in another 35 yards on four attempts. Palmer (2955 passing yards, 19 TD, 11 INT), meanwhile, threw touchdown passes to Ochocinco (68 receptions, 1016 receiving yards, 8 TD) and fellow wideout Laveranues Coles (37 receptions, 4 TD), while tight end J.P. Foschi (27 receptions, 2 TD) was his favorite target with seven catches for 82 yards. Ochocinco managed 79 yards on three receptions and Coles ended with 48 on four. Palmer was intercepted once and sacked twice in the loss, but went over 300 yards passing for the first time this season and has two touchdown strikes to a pair of interceptions in three career games versus the Chiefs. He did not face them last year due to injury. Benson ran for 111 yards and a score on 25 attempts in last year's meeting, while Johnson had just 18 yards on 10 carries for the Chiefs.
Due to Kansas City allowing 162.6 yards per game on the ground -- 31st in the league -- the Chiefs should see plenty of Benson and Johnson this weekend. They surely saw enough of Harrison in his record-breaking day last Sunday. Harrison's 286 rushing yards were the third-highest total in NFL history, behind just Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis. The Chiefs also allowed Cribbs to return kicks 100 and 103 yards for scores. Inside linebacker Demorrio Williams (102 tackles) made a team-high 13 tackles with the Browns pounding the ball on the ground, with safety DaJuan Morgan (18 tackles) adding eight. Though the Chiefs failed to record a sack in the game, they did record two interceptions. Corners Brandon Carr (52 tackles, 1 INT) and Brandon Flowers (56 tackles, 4 INT) each came away with a pick, giving the Chiefs 11 total interceptions on the season. That is tied for 23rd in the league, and Kansas City is also 31st in the NFL with just 19 sacks. Flowers has an interception in each of his last two games.
This is the weekend when most fantasy leagues hold their respective finals, so of course it is a time to overanalyze and sweat bullets. Charles faces a tough matchup, but he has been on fire as of late and if he got you this far, it might not hurt to stick with him. Kansas City's offense offers few other options outside of Chambers, but Bowe could be a factor if the Chiefs are forced to go to the air. Avoid the KC defense.
Benson was a bit of a letdown last weekend, but the Bengals win by running the ball and that is what they will do this weekend. The only thing that would stop Benson from having a monster day is a big, early advantage on the scoreboard that leads to him getting rested. Palmer came up big last week but should see his throw attempts go down this weekend, while Ochocinco is a nice play. Cincinnati's defense is a good but not great option.
The Bengals win games by running the ball, so this matchup plays greatly into their favor. Expect Cincinnati to get back on track with a heavy dose of Benson and Johnson, as the former will be amped up to get his team into the playoffs while the latter is aiming for redemption. Despite the big points put up last weekend, the Chiefs still couldn't get a win -- over the Browns nonetheless -- and will have trouble holding serve in this one. Expect grieving Cincinnati to get closure on its 2009 regular season this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 24, Chiefs 13
12/24 09:11:34 ET