Monday, December 18, 2006

Tonight's a huge game for my Cincinnati Bengals. After the last 15 years, I'm not the optimistic type. Plus, I'm sick as a dog.

And so I had written out what I expected from this excellent match up tonight. But then I was sent a fine editorial by Paul Daughtery that I'm just gonna repost here.

Head on over to my latest uber post at Poker Works. Lotsa great poker stuff there.

Good stuff here. Go Bungals!


Damn the torpedos!
Hot-handed passing is this team's hallmark

The Bengals' offense can beat you any which way. But the passing game defines the team. It's no coincidence the playoff train began boarding four weeks ago, when Carson and Chad rediscovered what makes them Carson and Chad.

Conventional wisdom suggests December is when defenses and running backs take over. The weather turns iffy, collars tighten in the play-calling booth. September and October were for dancing. To win now, you march.

So you'd think Cincinnati's stretch drive to the playoffs would be a Rudi-fest: Monday night against Indy's woeful run defense; Dec. 24 in Denver, where the weather outside could be frightful; then the Dec. 31 regular-season finale against the Steelers, who force you to prove your manhood every time you play them.

Rudi Johnson is the perfect security blanket. He has lost one fumble all season, last week against Oakland. He doesn't get tackled for a loss very often. Need to stabilize things, chew some clock, play football the way Ronald Reagan ran the country?

Give the ball to Rudi.

That's the thinking.

But it's wrong.

Winning teams develop singular personalities. You know who they are. They know who they are. Is anyone unsure what "Steelers football" means? Jim Fassel tried to make the Ravens' offense something it wasn't. Brian Billick fired him, started handing the ball to Jamal Lewis 30 times a game, and Baltimore won five in a row.

The Bengals are different. They take the stereotype and throw over top of it. Carson Palmer-to-Chad Johnson is what matters most here, followed very closely by Palmer-to-T.J. Houshmandzadeh, across the middle on third-and-8. The only other NFL team whose swagger comes from its passing game is the one Cincinnati is playing Monday night.

As Houshmandzadeh put it: "To win games, you need explosive plays. Rudi's not a back that's going to take you 90 yards. To get explosive plays, we've got to throw the ball."

Ironically, the swagger re-emerged in a 49-41 loss to San Diego Nov. 12. Palmer threw three touchdown passes that day; Chad Johnson and Houshmandzadeh combined for a ridiculous 348 yards and 18 catches. Only a defensive meltdown prevented a win over the best team in the league.

(Praise also goes to the offensive line, which has been giving Palmer just enough time to allow receivers to break free of coverage.)

The Bengals haven't lost since. They beat New Orleans when Chad caught six passes for 190 yards and three scores. They won at Cleveland when Palmer completed 25 of 32 passes, including 14 to Johnson or Houshmandzadeh. In a home win over the Ravens, the duo combined for 18 catches and 197 yards.

Conversely, the Bengals had no chance in a 26-20 loss to Baltimore Nov. 5 because Palmer had the worst game of his career: 12-of-26 passing with two interceptions.

If the deep sideline miss to a wide-open Chad Johnson in the loss to Atlanta Oct. 29 defined the mediocre first half of the Bengals' season, the flea-flicker bomb to Houshmandzadeh against Baltimore in a 13-7 win over Baltimore Nov. 30 has illuminated the promising second half. Rudi Johnson might be a considerable part of the Bengals' soul; their beating heart looks like a go-route to Chad Johnson.

Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski goes as far as to say his offense uses the pass to set up the run. Once Palmer has shown he can get the ball to his wideouts, safeties play deep and, occasionally, linemen are replaced with pass defenders. "That's when we generate big numbers in the running game," Bratkowski said.

Chad Johnson's mercurial personality also sets a mood. "His energy level rubs off on other players," Bratkowski said. "When he's making those plays, it just energizes everybody. When it's not going (well) for him, we don't seem to have the same energy."

Said Houshmandzadeh: "Teams that are built on defense and running the ball, every game is going to be close if you don't get turnovers. You're not going to run for 30 yards every time. It's a grind-it-out game if you don't have explosive plays."

The Bengals can grind it out, but they'd rather not. It isn't who they are.

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