NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati (10-6)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Erasing the memory of last week's dismal 37-0 loss to the New York Jets figures to be a daunting task for the Cincinnati Bengals, though such an effort won't be nearly as historic as the team's attempt to cast aside a playoff drought that has lasted almost 20 years.
When they play host to the Jets in a Week 17 rematch at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Bengals will be attempting to score their first postseason win since Jan. 6, 1991, when they routed the Houston Oilers in decisive 41-14 fashion before falling to the Los Angeles Raiders the following week. That there are no longer NFL teams called the Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Raiders is but one indicator of how long ago the Bengals' last playoff success took place, as is the fact that the division Cincinnati won that season - the AFC Central - has gone the way of the dodo as well.
Nineteen seasons later, the Bengals went 10-6 to reign supreme atop the AFC North, going 6-0 in division games and reaching the postseason for just the second time in head coach Marvin Lewis' seven years on the job. Cincinnati's last trip to the playoffs came back in 2005, when they won the AFC North but saw a devastating knee injury to quarterback Carson Palmer derail their chances in a 31-17 loss to a Pittsburgh Steelers squad that would go on to win the Super Bowl.
Palmer, who subsequently saw most of his 2008 season washed away by an elbow injury, has fought his way back into position to notch the first postseason win of his NFL career. But unlike the 2005 team that rode Palmer and a high-octane passing game to the division crown, this version of the Cincinnati Bengals has favored a power running approach and solid defense.
Cedric Benson (1,251 rushing yards, 6 TD) was at the forefront of a Bengals attack that rushed for more than 2,000 yards and finished Top 10 in NFL rushing offense during the regular season, while a resurgent defense guided by veteran coordinator Mike Zimmer gave up the fourth-fewest yards and sixth-fewest points in the league.
As strong as the Bengals defense was, however, Cincinnati finds itself behind its wild card weekend opponent the Jets in several NFL defensive categories.
The Jets finished atop the NFL in total defense (252.3 yards per game), scoring defense (14.8 points per game), passing defense (153.7 yards per game), touchdowns allowed (26), touchdown passes allowed (8), opponents' third-down percentage (31.5), and opponents' completion percentage (51.7) during the regular season, helping the team finish 9-7 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2006.
First-year head coach Rex Ryan will be attempting to lead the franchise to its first playoff victory since 2004, when the Jets defeated the Chargers in the wild card round before losing to the Steelers in overtime the following week.
Like the Bengals, the Jets also favor a run-first approach offensively, with the struggles of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez (12 touchdowns, 20 INT) having much to do with their preferred mode of travel. New York led the league in rushing offense (172.2 yards per game) during the regular season, thanks to over 2,200 combined yards from the trio of Thomas Jones (1,402 yards, 14 TD), Shonn Greene (540 yards, 2 TD), and Leon Washington (331 yards), who missed more than half the season after breaking his leg in late October.
The Jets won their only postseason meeting with the Bengals all-time, scoring a 44-17 road victory in a 1982 AFC First-Round Playoff.
The Jets lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 14-7, running their win streak in the series to two games with last week's 37-0 rout. The Bengals won the most recent game played between the teams at Paul Brown Stadium, a 38-31 triumph in Week 7 of the 2007 season. The Jets won the previous meeting between the teams in the Queen City, a 31-14 triumph at Riverfront Stadium in 1997.
Lewis is 1-3 in his career against the Jets, while New York's Ryan is 1-0 against both Lewis and Cincinnati as a head man. Lewis and Ryan were both members of the Baltimore Ravens staff from 1999 through 2001, winning a Super Bowl together during the 2000 season.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Without question, the Jets are going to be looking to run the football from the moment they step off the bus at Paul Brown Stadium. They'll turn to a player in Jones who has a solid personal playoff history, having rushed for 235 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries (6.9 yards per rush) in his past two playoff games combined - both as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2006. Jones was held to 78 yards on 27 carries by the Bengals last week, but did score twice. Greene rushed 13 times for 62 yards in the victory, but the team's leading rusher was wildcat quarterback Brad Smith (207 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions), who made his four runs hold up for 92 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown dash in the second quarter. The team's starting quarterback - Sanchez - has just four touchdown passes versus 10 interceptions over his last seven games and must stay out of turnovers on Saturday. The team does have capable targets in wideouts Jerricho Cotchery (57 receptions, 3 TD) and Braylon Edwards (45 receptions, 4 TD) along with tight end Dustin Keller (45 receptions, 2 TD), though all have been hit-or-miss based largely on the struggles of their quarterback. A Jets line renowned mainly for its run-blocking abilities allowed a modest 30 sacks on the season.
The Bengals would seem to have a solid chance of containing the Jets running game, since Cincinnati ranked seventh in NFL rushing defense (98.3 yards per game) and allowed the fewest rushes of 20 yards or longer (5) in the league, but the team is at less than full strength in the front seven heading into the postseason. Promising rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle) and defensive tackle Pat Sims (forearm) were both lost to season-ending injuries over the past two weeks, placing more pressure on an LB corps led by Dhani Jones (113 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Keith Rivers (72 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), and a d-line that should have tackle Domata Peko (23 tackles) back from injury on Saturday. Peko has been out since Nov. 29th with a knee problem. The Bengals should be in good shape in the secondary, where corners Johnathan Joseph (69 tackles, 6 INT) and Leon Hall (71 tackles, 6 INT) match up well with Cotchery and Edwards, and safety Chris Crocker (51 tackles, 2 INT) is expected to return following a three-game absence due to an ankle problem. Cincinnati has had trouble rushing the passer since end Antwan Odom went down due to injury in Week 6, but ends Jonathan Fanene (36 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) and Robert Geathers (36 tackles, 3.5 sacks) have had their moments.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
It would be a healthy stretch to say that the Bengals offense enters the playoffs playing its best football, as the team has been held to under 300 yards in three of its past four games, including last week's laughable 72-yard, five-first-down effort at the Jets. Palmer (3094 passing yards, 21 TD, 13 INT) has just one 300-yard game this season, that coming in a loss at San Diego in Week 14, and his main receiving triumvirate of Chad Ochocinco (72 receptions, 9 TD), ex-Jet Laveranues Coles (43 receptions, 5 TD), and Andre Caldwell (51 receptions, 3 TD) has been relatively quiet as well. Palmer was 1-of-11 passing for zero yards and an interception last Sunday night. Ochocinco is expected to play despite injuring his knee in warm-ups last week and being held without a catch at the Meadowlands. As has been the case all year, the Bengals will come in seeking to establish the run, though Benson too has tapered off since a strong first half of the season. The ex-Bear did not play last week for precautionary reasons, and was held under four yards per carry in four of his last six appearances. Ex-Chief Larry Johnson (562 rushing yards) and rookie Bernard Scott (321 rushing yards) are also capable of running the football. An overachieving Bengals line has allowed 29 sacks on the year.
The defense is the main reason the Jets find themselves in the playoffs at all, as the newest version of Gang Green allowed just 47 points over its final six games (7.8 per game), a stretch that meshed with a period of 5-1 football. Cornerback Darrelle Revis (54 tackles, 6 INT) - who will be matched up with Ochocinco again on Saturday - was the unit's MVP during the regular season, and Palmer may want to steer clear of him altogether. That should mean a lot of work for opposite corner Lito Sheppard (31 tackles, 1 INT), as well as safeties Kerry Rhodes (63 tackles, 3 INT) and Jim Leonhard (76 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT). A solid Jets pass rush is led by outside linebacker Calvin Pace (55 tackles, 8 sacks) and end Shaun Ellis (53 tackles, 6.5 sacks). The biggest concern for New York is at inside linebacker, where frequent playmaker David Harris (127 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT)) is questionable for Saturday with an ankle problem. If Harris can't go, extra pressure will be on front seven stalwarts like LB Bart Scott (92 tackles, 1 sack) and nose tackle Sione Pouha (45 tackles) to help slow Benson.
Give the Bengals the edge in the kicking game, as their Shayne Graham (23-of-28 FG) is generally more reliable than the Jets' Jay Feely (30-of-36 FG). The outspoken Feely is 5-of-5 on field goals over the past two weeks, but had two big misses in the team's lone December loss, to the Falcons. Feely had 10 touchbacks on kickoffs, to eight for Graham, but Feely was part of a kickoff return group that gave up two touchdowns to Miami's Ted Ginn, Jr. in the same game earlier this season.
Neither punter is exceptional, as Bengals rookie Kevin Huber (43.2 avg,) and the Jets' Steve Weatherford (42.0 avg.) were both in the bottom half of the league in both gross and net punting average. Neither team allowed a touchdown in the punt return game all season.
The Bengals led the AFC in punt return average, with 11.9 per attempt, though main returner Quan Cosby did not find the end zone on any of his 40 returns. The Jets have used both Jerricho Cotchery (10.3 avg.) and Jim Leonhard (8.2 avg.) on returns, with Cotchery appearing in that role most recently. Both clubs scored off kickoff returns in '09. Brad Smith (31.0 avg.) had the Jets' lone return for a touchdown this year, a 106-yard kickoff return against the Colts in Week 16, while Bernard Scott (31.5 kickoff return average) scored off a 96-yard return against the Steelers in Week 10, though Andre Caldwell (18.6 avg.) primarily handled those duties.
The Bengals seem to be treating last week's 37-0 thrashing at the hands of the Jets as no big deal, since Cincinnati clearly had very little urgency or intent to win that game. And that's probably the only approach they can take, but we have a feeling the Bengals are going to be stunned to learn that even when they are trying, they're not as good as the Jets. Cincinnati is 3-4 in its last seven games, with the wins coming over the Browns, Lions, and Chiefs, and is still hanging its hat on that 4-0 record against the Ravens and Steelers, two overrated teams that didn't have a high-quality win between them after October. The Bengals are average offensively on their best day, and don't figure to move the ball much on a Jets defense that looks like the real deal. Cincinnati is also going to have problems containing the Jets' top-ranked running game with Maualuga and Sims both out due to injury.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 21, Bengals 10
01/06 19:44:39 ET