What do Bengals have to play for? Beating Ravens

December 29, 2010|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

After Sunday, the uncertainty begins for the Cincinnati Bengals.

After the 4-11 Bengals wrap up the regular-season finale against the Ravens Sunday, they will clean out their lockers, participate in player-coach meetings, and bid farewell to their teammates. But the questions will remain.

Will, as expected, head coach Marvin Lewis be dismissed, and if so, who will replace him? Which free agents will be back next year? And with the absence of a collective bargaining agreement, will there even be a next season?

That's why Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer said during a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday that the only thing the players can take solace in is getting an opportunity to finish the year with a much-needed upset of the playoff-bound Ravens.

"Right now, for the love of the game and pride and that we're playing against a division opponent and we can slightly change their playoff situation," Palmer said when asked what was left to play for. "That's what it comes down to. It's a lot of our last time to play together. We've got guys that really enjoy playing together and enjoy the game, and we've got a chance to play in an NFL game. It's not a locker room full of guys that can't wait for the season to be over or guys that just want to go home. It's a locker room full of guys [who] realize that with the uncertainty of the CBA and all of those things that could shake out, it could be the last time to play football for a long time."

Sunday's contest is meaningful to the Ravens in more ways than one. Not only would a victory give them a shot at overtaking the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North championship and the No. 2 seed in the AFC postseason, but it would also end a three-game losing streak to Cincinnati, which has beaten the Cleveland Browns and the San Diego Chargers in the last two weeks.

"They have beaten us the last three times, but this game has a little bit more to it," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs acknowledged. "We're in Baltimore, that's one. We're playing for our 12th win. We're playing for the possibility of getting the second seed in the playoffs, and we're playing for the division. So a lot of that has its advantages, especially in preparing."

Unlike the Ravens, the Bengals are preparing for a tumultuous offseason, which has been precipitated by one of the worst implosions in team history. After capturing the division with a 10-6 record last season, Cincinnati followed a 2-1 start with 10 consecutive losses.

With an offense that boasted Palmer, running back Cedric Benson — the eighth-ranked rusher in the NFL last year — and dangerous wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, the Bengals were tabbed by many football analysts as likely to post back-to-back playoff runs for only the second time in franchise history. (The first occurred in 1981 and 1982 under the direction of Forrest Gregg.)

Instead, Lewis said, the players learned the hard way that reputation alone doesn't guarantee success.

"Expectations on paper don't win. It's a lesson learned for guys," he said. "In the NFL, your good players have to go win the game for you, and unfortunately, we didn't have them step up and happen very often. And I didn't do a good enough job getting them into position to do that or somehow making it happen in those 10 games we lost, finding out a way to get our good players in position to win the football game for us and for them to be able to come through with that."

The offense lagged during the team's 10-game skid. Palmer threw 15 interceptions and just three in the other five contests. Pass protection was almost non-existent as 25 of Palmer's 28 sacks occurred during the swoon, and the time of possession dipped to 29 minutes, 25 seconds from 34:08.

The defense was also guilty of shoddy play. Opponents averaged 29 points and 362 yards during the streak after mustering 18.6 and 298.6, respectively, in the other five games. And the defense surrendered an average of almost two more first downs, which contributed to the unit spending an average of four more minutes on the field.

But the Ravens and their fans shouldn't expect the Bengals to play patsy. Take it from former Cincinnati wide receiver and current Raven T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

"You always want to be the team that's going to the playoffs, but I remember being on those teams where you're getting your plane tickets, you're packing up your stuff wherever you're going, and it's the last game for a long time," he said. "So you're looking at it as, 'I'm going to go out with a bang.' And when you're playing a team that's going to the playoffs, of course, who doesn't want to do that? I'm sure that's the mindset because that was my mindset when I was standing on that side."

Another factor, according to Houshmandzadeh, is Lewis, who — despite growing speculation that the organization will not retain him after his contract runs out this season — isn't one to make it easy for opponents.

"It's hard to quit on Marvin as a coach," Houshmandzadeh said. "He won't allow it. He won't allow his players to say, 'Oh, we have nothing to play for. I'm done.' He doesn't let that happen. They're always going to compete."

While Palmer and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth are on record as having embraced their role as spoiler, Lewis said he is looking beyond such a label.

"You win football games through execution and preparation and over the last couple of weeks, we've done a better job of doing the things that were asked earlier, of making game-winning plays, and that's what counts," he said. "Whether it's a stop on defense, whether it's a big play in the kicking game that sets up field position or an offensive touchdown, those are the things that matter. We've been through a whole slew of the other, and it's kind of our time to have something go our way."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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