10:15 p.m. **
BIGGEST SURPRISE IN A LEAD ROLE, Bosox World Series category:** Rookie safety Madieu Williams.
He's tied for second with two interceptions on a defense that already has 21 takeaways, the same or more as the defenses in 2002, 2000, and 1998 had in entire seasons. The surprise isn't that he's played well. They knew what they had, but it's that he's done it in virtually every position, and has become their nickel cornerback so quickly.
BIGGEST SURPRISE IN A SUPPORTING ROLE, exit polls category: Rookie free agent punter Kyle Larson.
He has kept them in losses (52.3-yard average in Tennessee) and contributed in wins (three punts inside the Denver 16), putting him third in the Barack Obama Rookie of the Year voting behind Williams and middle linebacker Landon Johnson.
MAGIC NUMBER OF THE YEAR, 270 electoral votes category: In games that quarterback Carson Palmer throws less than 33 times, the Bengals are 2-1 and he has a passer rating of 95.7. When he throws more than 33, the Bengals are 1-4 and his rating is 54.5.
MOST IMPROVED STAT OF THE YEAR, Florida ballots category: The Bengals are plus-7 in turnover differential with 21 takeaways, three shy of last year's 24 turnovers.
The loss of their slot receiver in Warrick, the tight ends invisible until Sunday in the passing game, and the up-and-down performance of the offensive line has really hurt them in the red. In the last four games, they have scored three touchdowns on 12 red-zone trips.
MOST REVEALING OFFENSIVE STAT OF THE YEAR, Ben Roethlisberger category. Let's face it. The teams that run the ball win. And as The Magic Number of the Year shows, it's particularly key for a team with a first-year quarterback. Of the top five rushing teams, Pittsburgh (1), Atlanta (3), Jets (4), and Seattle (5) are all in the thick of it, but the Bengals are on pace to rush for 353 fewer yards than last season and to be under four yards per rush.
It shows you how crucial the health of the offensive line is. Just when center Rich Braham came back from knee problems early in the season, right tackle Willie Anderson began to feel his knee problems more and left tackle Levi Jones has been trying to get his knee right since last December. Left guard Eric Steinbach continues to fight through two elbow procedures since last season and right guard Bobbie Williams has been fighting penalties as he tries to adapt to his new team.
But if these guys hit a groove like they have in two of the last three games, don't touch that dial.
DRAFT ROOM ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, Ozzie Newsome category: As shaky as the '04 class started, now these guys are coming on and the Bengals should hang their hats on these guys in the second half.
When head coach Marvin Lewis went to those young backups, he never thought he would have to call on them so soon and so frequently. Obviously, some are playing before their times and there is going to be some ugliness. But they have to take heart with how well four of their first seven picks played on defense last Sunday against Dallas.
The question remains. Is the Dallas offense that slow and old, or did the youthful Bengals just make it look that way?
SMOKE AND MIRRORS SPECIAL EFFECTS AWARD, Howard Dean category: Special teams coach Darrin Simmons. Here is the guy who has been slammed hardest by the 13 IR hits, but his teams keep churning out solid, dependable performances.
Including Graham, the kickoff team has four players back from last year, and the unit is No. 6 in coverage in the league. The punt team has three players back from last year, and is tied for 14th in coverage.
Of his top 10 teams tacklers from last year, four are no longer on the team (Riall Johnson, Dwayne Levels, Brandon Bennett, Jeff Burris), one is on injured reserve (Khalid Abdullah) and one has been hurt most of the season in Rogers Beckett.
In 24 games, Simmons has transformed what used to be the home office of Football Follies into a docudrama. They're missing a little MTV in the return game without Warrick, but good punt returns have spiced up the last two wins with O'Neal's 17-yarder against Denver and T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 28-yarder last Sunday against Dallas. **
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT IN A LEAD ROLE, John Edwards category:** Run Defense.
The Bengals didn't get Warren Sapp, Daryl Gardener's back blew up, new middle linebacker Nate Webster's knee blew out, and the safeties are checking in and out. And, they are actually on pace to give up 4.5 yards per rush this season as opposed to 4.8 last season.
But now you're at the half-way point already allowing six 100-yard rushers and you still have to play Clinton Portis, Duce Staley, Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon, Tiki Barber, and Willis McGahee. That group has a total of 21 100-yard games this season.
If you're looking for some of the reasons this club has the same half-way record as last year, it's that stat as well as inconsistency caused by injuries on the offensive line, the loss of Peter Warrick, and 13 players on injured reserve. **
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT IN A SUPPORTING ROLE, Scott Rolen category:** RB Chris Perry. It's not the kid's fault that he has never been healthy enough to get untracked because he could really help out on third down out of the backfield. And this abdominal strain isn't exactly a broken fingernail. Every time he twists the core of his body, he aggravates it.
To have your first-round pick with the same number of yards as your fourth-rounder (Robert Geathers) has sacks (1) is a tough thing.
Perry has caught three balls and the Bengals tailbacks have caught 25, led by Kenny Watson's 18. But look at how a back out of the backfield helps offenses. Four AFC running backs have more or the same amount of catches as the Bengals tailbacks combined. Houston's Domanick Davis leads with 28 for the NFL's No. 8 offense, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson has 27 for the No. 11 offense, and the Jets' Curtis Martin has 25 for the No. 9 unit.
Like we say, give Perry a break and a chance. Because his fresh legs and hands can be a huge lift for this offense down the stretch.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER:K Shayne Graham. So what if it's a kicker? The club's struggles in the red zone make him even more valuable. He's on pace to break the club's scoring record as well as the accuracy mark he set last season. He's 18-for-20, but 5-for-6 when kicking to give the team a tie or lead.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:** RT Willie Anderson. Wide receiver Chad Johnson may end up being the guy, but he needs more Denvers and fewer Dallases, and no one guy is tied to wins and losses more than Rudi with 96 yards on 24 carries in the fourth quarters of their three victories. But he has also gained fewer than 70 yards in half the games.
Anderson has been the heart and soul of an offense hamstrung by injuries along the line, the loss of Warrick, and the trials and tribulations of a first-year quarterback. The fact he's been playing on torn knee cartilage since training camp and should have been on the inactive list Sunday instead of blanking Cowboys sack ace Greg Ellis makes it a no-brainer. **
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR:** CB Tory James and ROLB Brian Simmons.
James leads the NFL with five interceptions and becomes the first Bengals cornerback with more than four in a season since Ashley Ambrose went to the Pro Bowl after he had eight in 1996. James is on pace to have the Bengals' first 10-pick season ever.
Simmons, whose own knee can't be too great considering he got scoped just before the season, has been a rock in the weak side as the middle blew up next to him.
Kevin Hardy moved out of the middle in the offseason, Webster moved in, and he was gone for the year after the third game. Then rookie Caleb Miller got the nod, got hurt, and now Simmons is working next to another rookie in Landon Johnson, playing middle backer for the first and probably the last time.
But Simmons leads the team in tackles, has an interception for a touchdown, a sack, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. **
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER, Mike Shanahan category:** CB Deltha O'Neal.
Last year at this time the Broncos were making plans to move him to receiver. But he's got two interceptions, and except for the 99-yard pass in Cleveland that wasn't entirely his fault, name a play where he got flat-out beat for something large.
Since the Bengals gave up three plays of at least 49 yards in Cleveland back on Oct. 17, the longest play they have allowed is a 37-yard pass from Titans quarterback Billy Volek to his fullback. Since Cleveland, a wide receiver has caught one touchdown pass and that was Denver's Rod Smith on a three-yarder. **
BEST CEO UNDER FIRE, Donald Trump category:** Head coach Marvin Lewis.
Say what you will about the media shilling for Lewis. But in the old days, all the injuries, a first-year quarterback, and an emotional Pro Bowler would have jettisoned this season into Never-Never Land a long time ago. Yet Lewis has kept it together with an implacable hand-on-the-stern determination to stick to his blueprint.
He got ripped in some quarters for taking the defensive play calling away from coordinator Leslie Frazier for a game because he wanted to prove some things to himself and everybody else. But it was a decisive move, the kind of lay-your-hide-out-there move he wants his players to employ.
And anyone notice they haven't been beaten for a long score since Frazier got the headsets back, and that they've allowed four touchdowns in the last three games?
There are some things he's got to get fixed, of course. That 0-4 road record is brutal, and a Marvin Lewis team has to play better on defense. But if the defense plays like it has the past three weeks (remember, even in the Tennessee game they forced four straight punts to end it), they look to have found something with a lot of guys who weren't even supposed to be on the field yet.