Bengals hope to Marshall final push

With the Bengals walking into the Rams Throwback Jersey Game Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), we've stocked the Bengals.com media forum with scribes and analysts working that NFL of 1999 that saw St. Louis ride the Marshall (Faulk) Plan to an improbable Super Bowl title.

Their conclusion is the Bengals are going to reverse that '99 Riverfront verdict in which Kurt Warner walked out of the Kroger aisle and into the MVP race with three TD passes. It might not be by 38-10 like it was that day, but The Forum sees the Bengals going to 8-6 with their first road win in 49 days.

The estimable Jim Thomas of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered that '99 club along with all the others since the Rams moved from Los Angeles and he's never seen a team so overcome by injuries the way this one has. He sees a 2-11 season going to 2-12 with a quarterback in Kellen Clemens making the start after just five practices with the Rams, but not because of a defense he thinks is pretty solid.

Howard Balzer also covered the '99 Rams as well as some Los Angeles Rams games during his 36 years working the NFL and now writes for the Web site of the Rams flagship radio station, 101Sports.com. Balzer, an officer of the Pro Football Writers of America, makes a tongue-in-cheek upset pick backed up in fact. When the Rams upset the Saints a few weeks back, they were wearing their Throwbacks and playing with a backup quarterback.

The Cincinnati Enquirer's Bengals beat man, Joe Reedy, covered the Jaguars back in '99, which means he has now covered Jeff Blake and Carl Pickens's last Bengals game and the first for Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. He's picking the Bengals to do what Seattle did to the Rams on Monday night and wear them down in the second half of a 30-13 victory.

Tony Softli was promoted to the Panthers director of college scouting the year after the Rams won it all and five years later he came to St. Louis as a vice president for player personnel. He had a four-year run there and is now the club's radio sideline reporter. He's also picking the Bengals because he doesn't know how a new quarterback with a decimated offensive line beats the NFL's seventh-ranked defense.

Let's go around the table:

THOMAS

I've never seen a team get hit with injuries the way this Rams team has been hit. Cornerback Justin King is the last of their top five cornerbacks they had going into the season and he came up with a shoulder injury this week and is questionable. If he doesn't play, they literally don't know who is going to play the nickel. All told, they've lost 10 cornerbacks.

And they've been hit on the offensive line, which has hurt them with any kind of continuity. They've scored 12 offensive touchdowns in 13 games, their options at receiver are limited, and now they've got a new quarterback. It's tough to move the ball.

The defense has really held up pretty well. Chris Long has had an amazing season with 12 sacks. He might have 20 if they ever had the lead. The first six games of the season they had the lead for 6:30.

Long had one first-and-goal series against San Francisco where he had a sack on first down, stopped running back Frank Gore on second down, and pressured quarterback Alex Smith so hard on third down he threw an errant pass.

When Leonard Little left, he ended up moving to his natural position at left end. He's more natural with that hand on the ground. He's really expanded his game with a spin move and he's using his hands better. He's a relentless player who's getting a lot of attention in max protections. He's having a Pro Bowl year.

Their safeties are playing well, but they've just been on the field too long and with all the injuries at corner (head coach) Steve Spagnuolo has had to play a lot of Cover 2 and not blitz as much as his defenses have in the past.

The game is going to be sold out, but with the fans wanting heads to roll the dome isn't really the advantage it was back in Greatest Show on Turf days. They're honoring Marshall Faulk and at some point Sunday they may have to pull him out of the stands to help out Steven Jackson, a guy having a great year in a lot of adversity.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-13. The Rams defense keeps them in it, but not all the way.

REEDY

The Bengals are looking for that first three-phase game since Seattle on Oct. 30 and I think we can look at what Seattle did to the Rams on Monday night. They wore them down in the running game and on special teams.

I think this one comes down to Cedric Benson and the Bengals being able to execute their running game and the rest of the offense. Given what happened last week (minus rushing in the second half), I think he'll be determined. The offensive line has done a good job with wearing people down most of the season.

Watching this team throughout history, we know the Bengals have a habit of playing to the competition. That has to be the biggest concern. Steven Jackson can go off at any time.

But the Bengals still have a lot to play for. With what the Jets have to face and what this team has to face, it's still a more favorable road. The Jets go on the road to Philly and they get a Giants team that still has a lot to play for before they go to Miami. The one disconcerting thing is how is Miami going to respond to playing for an interim head coach because that's going to be the big game if it comes down to conference records.

If the Bengals take care of business this week and next week against Arizona, they get a big game at home with Baltimore to end it.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-20. If you look at what they did against Indy, a team with two good pass rushers that struggled against the run, they shut down the pass rush.

BALZER

I've never seen one position have so many injuries like the Rams have had at cornerback, but the offensive line has also been hit badly.

They've had no chance to get anything going up front offensively. They've started nine different offensive linemen at 13 different positions and it looks like Adam Goldberg is going to be back at left tackle this Sunday. He plays better at right tackle. This is his third start at left tackle this season. He gave up a big sack to Arizona in the red zone while playing left.

I don't see Sam Bradford playing quarterback this week. It would take a miracle because he hasn't practiced and he's been walking around with the ankle in a boot all week, and I'm not sure they have the confidence that they can protect him. That leaves them with a guy in Clemens that hasn't been here a week.

And it's hard for me to see that Rams secondary holding up against A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson on the outside. The defense has hung in there, but I don't see them able to survive those matchups.

THE EDGE: Rams, 17-16. Longshot, but the Rams were wearing their Throwbacks back in October when backup QB A.J. Feeley upset the Saints, 31-21.

SOFTLI

I see the Bengals as a very solid team that has a bright future. I think you need 10 Blue players, and by that I mean difference-makers and they've got at least seven led by Green, an elite receiver, and a quarterback who is a winner.

I can see what Coach (Marvin Lewis) is doing. He's got a bunch of young guys that are playing hard. I really like Cedric Benson. He's a tough runner, and their defense is fast and runs to the ball.

The Bengals also play good on special teams and I think that's going to be a factor Sunday. I think Brandon Tate is an excellent two-way returner and the Rams have given up some plays in the kicking game.

The Rams play pretty good defense, but they get worn down. You take away the two big games by DeMarco Murray in Dallas (253 yards) and Beanie Wells (228 three weeks ago in St. Louis) and they're not the 32nd-ranked rush defense. They play hard and they're getting good safety play.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-13. With the way the offensive line has been shuffled and the fact there is probably going to be a new quarterback, that is tough against the NFL's seventh-ranked defense.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Bengals are in a Throwback Jersey Game a week after they probably felt like throwing up all over their jerseys when they came so sickeningly close so many times to securing last week's game against the Texans until it got away with two seconds left.

That's the biggest question heading into Sunday's game. Is there going to be a hangover on the road against a team that everyone else has pretty much pounded?

Plus, the Bengals are most likely going to be facing a quarterback with all of nine NFL starts, just one in the last three years, and none in the last two.

But the Bengals should be playing as desperate as the Rams. They need to win the last three to have a shot at the playoffs and reverse the trends of 2005, 2006 and 2009, when Lewis's best teams ended 0-3, 0-3 and 2-4, respectively.

Take away the intangibles and it is a simple matchup. The positions where the Rams are hurt the most are pitted against the Bengals strengths. Green is lined up against a secondary that has lost 10 cornerbacks along the way. The devastated Rams offensive line gets a Bengals defensive line that will have at least a seven-man rotation for the first time in a month with the return of its best pass rusher, left end Carlos Dunlap.

Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gurdon cautions the Rams run defense isn't as bad as its No. 32 ranking. With players like Long, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, and safety Quintin Mikell, St. Louis has solid players that have been worn down by an offense that is last in converting third downs and has the ball an average of 28 minutes.

But the Bengals also look to have an edge in special teams, where the Rams have allowed two punt returns for TDs, one from the 99-yard line.

The biggest matchup for the Bengals is backup right tackle Anthony Collins keeping Long away from Andy Dalton, a huge charge. Long has had sacks in six of his last seven games, but Collins is an excellent pass protector who has played well off the bench.

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