NFL Preview - New Orleans (8-3) at Cincinnati (2-9)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Don't look now, NFL...the champs are back.
The New Orleans Saints haven't exactly been dominant while hanging around the NFC playoff race thus far in an injury-plagued 2010 season, but a current four-game win streak and a shrinking injury report this week could spell trouble for the homestanding Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday.
Running back Pierre Thomas could be on the verge of returning after eight weeks on the sidelines with a severely sprained ankle, while teammates Jeremy Shockey and Darren Sharper both fully practiced when the Saints reconvened on Wednesday, leading head coach Sean Payton to say he'd be surprised if they didn't play.
Thomas was the Saints' leading rusher last season with 793 yards along with six touchdowns. Shockey, who has 31 catches for 314 yards and three scores this season, has missed two games since bruising his ribs while making a touchdown catch Nov. 7 at Carolina. Sharper, an All-Pro last season, missed six games while recovering from offseason left knee surgery, then sat out the past two after pulling his left hamstring.
The only player on New Orleans' active roster who didn't practice was reserve running back Ladell Betts.
The Saints are a game behind front-running Atlanta in the NFC South and presently lead the race for the conference's top Wild Card berth.
"One of the positives at this point of the season is we've been able to gradually get guys healthy," Payton said. "So that's encouraging. We're just now putting a couple of wins together. The good news is that we're within striking distance and we've hung in there despite not playing some good football early on."
Meanwhile, the Bengals have dropped off the map.
Cincinnati opened the season with a game effort against New England and two straight subsequent wins, but has since plummeted to the bottom of the AFC with eight straight losses.
A 26-10 Thanksgiving defeat against the New York Jets was the teams's latest stumble, a game the Bengals led at halftime before fading in the final two quarters.
Four days prior to facing the Jets, Cincinnati allowed Buffalo to score 35 unanswered points in the second half for a wild 49-31 loss. The Bengals were done in by five turnovers in a 23-17 defeat to Indianapolis the previous Sunday.
"Those kinds of things in a football game like this you can't have," head coach Marvin Lewis said of Cincinnati's second-half mistakes in the loss to the Jets. "It just took us farther and farther away from the opportunity to keep staying on track offensively. Then you're playing uphill when you get in that situation when you know you have to throw every snap."
Lewis may soon be out of time as well, with rumors beginning to surface that the eighth-year coach won't have his soon-to-be expiring contract renewed at season's end.
"I don't know what to say," wide receiver Terrell Owens said after the Thanksgiving setback. "It's something different in every phase of the game every week. Offensively, defensively or special teams, we find a way to put ourselves in the hole. I'm out of answers."
The Bengals lead the all-time series with the Saints, 6-5, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 31-16 road win in the last meeting, which took place in 2006. The Bengals are 3-0 against New Orleans since suffering a 20-13 loss at the Superdome in 1993. The Saints are 0-2 in Cincinnati since last winning there in 1990.
Lewis is 1-0 against the Saints all-time, while Payton is 0-1 versus both Lewis and the Bengals as a head coach.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Though not quite as prolific as they were during last year's title run, the Saints have maintained their position as one of the league's upper-echelon offenses. New Orleans is fourth in the league in total yardage (385.2 per week) and third in passing yards (291.0 ypg), while placing ninth in points scored (24.1 ppg). The run game, non-traditional compared to stereotypical smash-mouth teams, is just 24th with a weekly average of 94.2 yards. Cincinnati, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in stopping the run, as evidenced by its 23rd-place ranking in the league (123 yards allowed per week). Opposing passers have riddled the Bengals for 216.3 yards per game (15th overall), bringing the total yards allowed number to 339.3 per week (16th). The Bengals' number of 26.2 points per game surrendered is a woeful 27th among 32 teams.
In his last meeting with the Bengals, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw for a career-best 510 yards, and he has won nine of his last 10 starts against AFC foes when including last year's Super Bowl. He seeks a third straight game with at least 350 yards passing. In the backfield, unheralded rookie Christopher Ivory scored twice in the Saints' 30-27 Week 12 win over Dallas and has three touchdowns in his last two games. Injury-riddled running back Reggie Bush went for 109 yards from scrimmage in his last game against Cincinnati, gaining 51 on the ground and 58 receiving on eight catches. Thomas has six touchdowns in six games against the AFC, also including the Super Bowl win over Indianapolis. On the outside, lanky target Marques Colston has burst for 14 catches and 218 yards with two scores in his last two games and has at least four catches in all 11 contests this season. He's scored in four straight games against the other conference. Sidekick Lance Moore had a touchdown catch last week and Robert Meachem has two scores and a 26.3 yards per catch average in his last two. Finally, tight end Jimmy Graham looks for a fourth straight game with at least three catches.
For the Bengals, former University of Southern California linebacker Rey Maualuga picked off ex-college teammate Mark Sanchez in Week 12 for the first interception of his career, while end and second-round pick Carlos Dunlap ( No. 54 overall in April's draft) had two sacks against the Jets and has posted three in his last three games.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The numbers literally don't add up for Cincinnati, which has tumbled badly from its status as a playoff team in 2009, as the club averages 20.5 points (21st overall) and 329.5 yards (22nd) per week. Its passing total of 237.5 yards per week is slightly better compared to peers, coming in at 11th among 32 teams, though the run game has suffered, falling all the way to 25th with an anemic 92 yards per game average. New Orleans, on the other hand, has stiffened on the ball-stopping side, allowing just 17.9 points to rank sixth in the league and 306.7 yards to place seventh. Pass defense has been particularly stingy to the tune of just 197.8 yards per week -- third-best in the NFL -- while opposing runners have gone for 108.9 yards per game, a middle-of-the-pack No. 15.
In one career meeting with the Saints, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 275 yards, three touchdowns and a 127.8 passer rating. He's three passing scores shy of joining Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason as the only quarterbacks in Bengals history to throw for 150 touchdowns. Running back Cedric Benson has dodged injury long enough to average 93.8 yards per game in four 2010 outings at home. Among the air targets, Owens is 86 yards away from joining Jerry Rice (14) and Randy Moss (10) as the only players with at least 10 seasons with 1,000 receiving yards. He has 12 touchdown catches against the Saints in his career, tied with Atlanta for his most against any foe. Running mate Chad Ochocinco has 10 catches for 237 yards and three scores in two career games with New Orleans. Lastly, rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, the No. 21 overall pick in April's draft, leads AFC first-year players with 44 catches.
For the Saints, end Will Smith has 6 1/2 sacks in his last seven games versus the AFC and had a sack in his last meeting with the Bengals, while intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble against the Cowboys. Cornerback Tracy Porter chipped in with a pair of fumble recoveries in the Thanksgiving win and in his last two starts against the AFC, which includes the Super Bowl, has interception returns of 74 and 54 yards for touchdowns.
In the absence of a healthy run game, Brees should once again thrive and make it three straight 300-plus yard games. Colston has been equally prolific as of late and averages more than seven catches while having scored four touchdowns in last five games. Both are no-brainer plays, while Moore and Meachem are of varying usefulness depending on the format. Also worthwhile are Saints kicker Garrett Hartley and the New Orleans defense. Other than Owens and possibly Ochocinco, no one on the Cincinnati side warrants considerable consideration in the midst of a tough year.
Add it all up, and this one doesn't look good for the Bengals. New Orleans is streaking and in the midst of a heated race for the playoffs, so a need to win is apparent. Cincinnati, meanwhile, has hung with teams for a while, such as the Thanksgiving loss against the Jets, but tends to fade upon meeting adversity. It should come early and often this week, potentially spelling another one-sided result.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 30, Bengals 17
12/02 14:29:24 ET