Bengals, Cards close to vest

The straw poll of the Bengals.com Media Forum may end up with a bigger margin of victory than Saturday's first of two play-in playoff games at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-WLW 700) with the 8-6 Bengals trying to stop the streaking 7-7 Cardinals. The panel picks the Bengals with just one exception, giving the nod to Cincinnati because it's at home and the Cards may be past due with four straight wins and six out of the last seven.

Whatever it is going to be, it's going be close. With the Bengals involved in nine games decided by seven points or less and the Cardinals involved in 11 of those games, try 23-20. The Bengals score just under 22 points per game. The Cardinals allow just under 22 points per game.

Steve Wyche, who leads the NFL Network in silk and smooth, likes Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the clutch. Don Banks of Sports Illustrated sees the Bengals defense stopping what he calls "Skeltonmania." Kent Somers, who has been covering the Cardinals from Buddy (Ryan) to Larry (Fitzgerald) for The Arizona Republic, sees them playing on the road for the first time in a month and goes with the home team.

Darren Urban, the information man for AZCardinals.com, thinks the defense is going to stay hot and picks Arizona. The Cards haven't allowed more than 23 points since Oct. 30.

Let's go around the table:

WYCHE

The Cards are rolling, but I like the Bengals in this game. There hasn't been much difference between the quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, but I figure Arizona sticks with the hot guy in Skelton.

The big thing for the Bengals is they have to disrupt the rhythm of the Cardinals offense. They obviously can make the big play with Fitzgerald. Larry has really played well the last month or so. He's almost willing that offense. If the Bengals can make them grind for 70-, 80-yard drives and make them go long fields, they'll be all right. They just have to stay away from the mistakes and turnovers because the Cards have proven to be opportunistic.

Arizona has been playing good defense in their new scheme. It's more of a hybrid 3-4. It's not a total 3-4 Steelers look. They will show you some four-man lines and they can get push up the middle from Dockett.

But who have they stopped lately? They've gone against the Rams and 49ers and Browns and those aren't great offenses. I think the weather is a factor. It always is with the teams in the NFC West.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. Take your averages if they don't make any big mistakes at home.

URBAN

This is a huge test for the Cardinals and what they can do on the road, where they've only won twice this year. But they are really hitting their stride on defense.

A huge stat for them is 2.26 points. That's how many points they've been allowing on average after their offense turns it over. They turned it over three times against the 49ers, the 49ers didn't turn it over at all, and the Cards still won.

I'm interested to see how the Cardinals play A.J. Green. Everyone is assuming they'll put Patrick Peterson on him and he has been taking the top guy lately. He struggled some at corner early on, but he's played great out there for the last four weeks or so.

Same with Adrian Wilson, their veteran safety. He got off to a slow start, but for the last six weeks he's played safety as well as anyone in the league.

There hasn't been much difference between Skelton and Kolb, except that Kolb takes fewer chances. He plays a safer game. Skelton is more seat of his pants. He might make a turnover, but he'll also take a shot on a big play.

Larry Fitzgerald doesn't have the monster numbers he's had in the past, but he may be having his best season.

It will also be interesting to see what the Cardinals can do if they get off to a quick start (They've been outscored 71-29 in the first quarter) and are able to play defense with a lead.

THE EDGE: Cardinals, 17-13. In this streak they've been able to win in Philadelphia, beat a playoff team like San Francisco, and beat a contender like Dallas. This is a test because they're playing another contender on the road that plays the same kind of game they do. Good defense, special teams, big plays on offense. Go with the hot team.

BANKS

I sense some more magic from Andy Dalton and A.J. Green and I'm going to go with the Bengals to set up the game with the Ravens that could get them in.

The Cardinals have been living on the edge lately. They've been winning some crazy games in overtime and living on defense and special teams. They've also had some Skeltonmania, but the Bengals have a good enough defense to contain all that.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. I think Dalton is going to get the upper hand in this one and their defense makes enough plays.

SOMERS

The Cardinals have been doing just enough on offense to win, but it hasn't been very much. Still, going into last week's game they were leading the league with nine scoring plays of at least 50 yards.

Four of those were Patrick Peterson's punt returns, but Larry Fitzgerald is always an explosive player and they're getting some good play lately out of the other receiver, Andre Roberts, who's got good speed and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling is very fast out of the backfield.

The offense should also get a lift from tight end Todd Heap. He got hurt earlier in the year, but he's starting to play more and more and he had his biggest game last week with seven catches. They won't have Brandon Keith at right tackle, but that shouldn't make much of a difference because Jeremy Bridges also has experience there.

Calais Campbell is having a breakout year at defensive end with the seven sacks and three blocked field goals, Adrian Wilson has played really well at safety, and Peterson is playing well enough now that they usually put him on the best receiver.

And their special teams with Peterson have made them very dangerous. His emergence there and on defense has been a big factor in how they've played the last seven games.

I'd be surprised if Skelton doesn't get the start. He's a big guy (6-6, 244) who can create plays like the way (Ben) Roethlisberger can do it out of the pocket. He can break tackles and gives guys time to get open, but he hasn't been all that accurate (55 percent).

THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-17. The Bengals are home, it's a short week, and the Cardinals are unsettled at quarterback.

BOTTOM LINE

It has all the whiff of a special teams game. It feels like a special teams game and looks like a special teams game.

But this one is not going to come down to the fifth pick in the draft, Patrick Peterson, the wondrous Cardinals punt returner from LSU. Or even Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, the fourth pick from Georgia who has been as advertised as a great first-round's best player.

No. This one comes down to a veteran second-rounder from Coastal Carolina and a free agent rookie from Toledo in Jerome Simpson and Andrew Hawkins, respectively, Cincinnati's No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers. Throw in a second-year first-round tight end named Jermaine Gresham, and the complementary Bengals receivers must play better than the complementary Cardinals receivers.

Both defenses figure to try and double the explosive threats, Green and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald. And Arizona has weapons in the cupboard. Here comes tight end Todd Heap, a Bengals nemesis from days gone by with the Ravens coming off his best game with the Cardinals with seven catches for 69 yards against Cleveland. Heap has missed six games with injuries, but he looked healthy last week and don't tight ends always seem to be a thorn in the tight games the Bengals lose at home? Owen Daniels of Houston (100 yards) and Vernon Davis  of San Francisco (114) come to mind.

Wide receiver Andre Roberts (The Citadel) has also come on of late and can be a factor. He can run and has scored TDs in two straight games. And running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (Pittsburgh) is quick, shifty, and ran away with a dump pass to win a game in overtime a few weeks ago.

No, this may not be Georgia vs. LSU.

(Speaking of Pitt, Fitzgerald has been doing for years for what Green has done in 13 games for the Bengals. Last week in OT, between Peterson's 32-yard return and Jay Feely's chip-shot field goal, was a 32-yard bomb Skelton hung up for Fitzgerald on third-and-6 at the Cleveland 4. The Browns had to be rewinding to Green's 51-yard snag at the end of regulation to set up a field-goal winner at the end of regulation back on Nov. 27.)  

With slot receiver Andre Caldwell expected to be out for the Bengals again, Hawkins and fellow rookie Ryan Whalen have to respond under the biggest of circumstances. And the Bengals figure to need Gresham more than ever now. He hasn't scored in the last three games, when he's caught 98 yards. He's the X-factor for Cincinnati.

A hidden factor inside is Bengals right guard Mike McGlynn's matchup with perennial Pro Bowl tackle Darnell Dockett, a relentless pass rusher. McGlynn hasn't played right guard at all until this season and is getting more comfortable in his second full week of work there.

And then there's the experience factor. John Skleton is expected to make his 10th NFL start at quarterback, so for the third straight week and second at home, Dalton is opposed by a guy with fewer starts. The Bengals have to take advantage. And Skelton likes to take his chances. The hosts need a nice no-turnover game from Dalton and make the Cards pay for their minus-11 turnover differential.

Plus, there are the intangibles, which didn't compute against the 49ers back in September, so the Bengals will try it again. The Cards have won three road games the last two seasons and they're heading a long way east on a short week.

But, the special teams feel has a hard time going away, doesn't it? Peterson has four TD punt returns, all of at least 82 yards, the first time anyone has done that in a season. You know what a fan Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons is of Browns returner Josh Cribbs, but he says Peterson combines Cribbs's big frame and ability to break tackles with breakaway speed.

Yet Simmons's punt cover teams have been solid, except for Antonio Brown's TD return in Pittsburgh. The Bengals are still ninth covering punts in the league, but as long snapper Clark Harris said the Brown play reminds them they have to be perfect every snap.

One of the themes this week is to get the Bengals special teams back where they were in September and October when they were winning games with field position. Simmons told punter Kevin Huber a month ago that he needed him to get back to that form and they have to continue to do things like lead the NFL in foes' drive start after a kickoff.

Plus, there is Brandon Tate, the Bengals punt returner, sliding under the radar with Peterson coming to town. Tate has been a huge factor in most of Cincinnati's wins, most notably last week in St.  Louis, and is going to be working against an Arizona cover team that has allowed an 88-yard return for a TD.

OK, so maybe it is going to be a special teams game.

We know this:

It's going to be close and you'll be able to point to one play.

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