Posted: 5:40 p.m.
As a starting NFL quarterback, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel has as many 10-win seasons as his more recognizable college roommate. But Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer can change that Sunday with the club's 10th victory at Paul Brown Stadium, a win that would not only secure the AFC North but also his second double-digit winning season that would give him as many as Boomer Esiason.
"If they can get good players around him," Palmer said Thursday of Cassel, "they're going to be really successful."
A big game from Cassel is all that stands between the Bengals and the Dr. Strangelove scenario of needing to win next week in The Meadowlands against the unpredictable danger of the Jets. And Cassel has it in him. Not only is he coming off a season-high 331 yards passing in the 41-34 loss to the Browns, but he authored back-to-back 400-yard passing games last season for New England during his remarkable first year as a starter since high school.
"He's probably the most athletic guy we've faced back there," said rookie safety Tom Nelson. "He can get it out of there and he's got a good live arm."
The Bengals have been riding their No. 5 defense all year, so why shouldn't they rely on it now in the biggest game of the year even though they're coming off two road games where they allowed their most points?
Kansas City is 3-11 but these are not the Raiders, Browns and Lions.
The Chiefs have a quarterback in Cassel who was a statistical stunt-double of Tom Brady for the Pats last year and a running back in Jamaal Charles that is showing up on screens in NFL rushing leader Chris Johnson-like fashion.
"You see him rip off some long runs and he looks like Chris Johnson, able to go 90 yards just like that," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph of a guy that has three touchdown runs of at least 40 yards. "He can accelerate and he's gone."
The Bengals have to dig in at home knowing that this isn't Oakland, Cleveland or Detroit because they don't have quarterbacks or running backs anywhere near the Chiefs. But home is where the hits have been.
In seven games at PBS this season, the Bengals have allowed more than one touchdown in a game just twice and not in the last four. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has riled up the defense enough that in the four games following losses they have held foes to an average of 63 yards per game on the ground. If the Bengals don't want to face a hot Cassel, the Chiefs also don't want to face a Zimmer defense red-faced with redemption.
And for three months the Bengals have been saying their defensive mentality is suited for the weather and whimsy of a playoff run. Sunday they get 30 percent chance of snow showers with a game-time temperature of freezing.
"Physical. That's the key this week. Being physical," said SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga. "We haven't been quite where we were the last couple of weeks and we need to get back to that."
The Bengals like to fly around at home. Only the Texans have scored more than 20 points on them at PBS. Only one team has rushed for more than 100 yards against the Bengals in Cincinnati and that was the Steelers' 102. But Charles has gone for 143 and 154, respectively in the last two weeks.
"It's like Zim said this week," Nelson said. "Nothing matters but winning. Numbers don't matter. Zero yards don't mean anything. All that matters is winning and we're going to try to do it any way possible."
Which means, Joseph said, "We've gone back to the fundamentals in practice. All 11 guys running to the ball."
It also means playing well on third down. After the Bengals stoned the Lions on nine of 11 third-down tries three weeks ago to take over the NFL lead in that category, they gave up 13 of 21 in the next six quarters against the Minnesota and San Diego offenses that were reeling off third-down conversions in the mid-to-high 40 percents. But in a resolute second half last Sunday in San Diego, the Bengals blanked the Chargers on all four third-down tries.
"We haven't been as good on third down lately, but we've usually been able to keep teams below their percentage," Zimmer said. "I got a better feel during the game (in San Diego) of what to call and hopefully I'll start out a little better this week."
He'll want that to hold up because the Chiefs are next-to-last in the NFL at converting third downs at 25.7 percent.
Zimmer won't have to wait long because Cassel told the Cincinnati media this week that the Chiefs have found their identity in an up-tempo offense. That's going to put more strain on a young secondary that may be without safety Chris Crocker (ankle) for the second straight week. Guys like Nelson and rookie cornerback Morgan Trent (and even veteran cornerback Leon Hall) got roughed up a bit last week by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
"You learn and you go at it again," Nelson said. "We've been through that now. They like to get on the ball and go and we're not going to have a lot of time to get lined up. If you're prepared for it, it shouldn't be a problem."
Zimmer isn't so sure that his association with Chiefs head coach Todd Haley is going to help him. When Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Dallas, for three seasons Haley was the passing game coordinator.
"He's changed some the way he calls a game," Zimmer said. "He's not afraid to call anything. He might call six to eight runs and then six straight passes. He's kind of indiscriminate that way."