As if the script called for it, the crossroads of the Marvin Lewis era settle into the trenches in Baltimore.
Sunday's finale against the Ravens finds the Bengals playing their best football of their most disappointing season with Lewis' tried and true AFC North formula of rushing and defense. With a cloud over the coaching situation, the Bengals are playing decisively enough that the Bengals.com roundtable gives them the edge in a split decision against an 11-4 team bound for the playoffs.
Big Bird, a former NFL player who toiled in the league for a decade, says Sunday is a big barometer for the Bengals to judge how far their young talent has come, particularly wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. And he thinks the veterans have plenty to prove, too, even with the record at 4-11.
"You know Carson (Palmer) wants to keep showing people he's not washed up," Big Bird says. "Plus there are a lot of free agents on his team. Cedric Benson has been running hard all year and he will Sunday. He knows how that will look to other teams if he has a good game against Baltimore. Andrew Whitworth not getting to the Pro Bowl is going to have him fired up against Terrell Suggs. They've got plenty of motivation. I see the Bengals keeping the Ravens to 17 and they win, 20-17."
The Sage, another former vet who played 10 years, gives the Ravens the edge, 17-13, but he thinks the Bengals are going to end up playing against quarterback Marc Bulger and other backups once it's clear the Steelers are beating the Browns and the Ravens have no shot to win the division.
"The Ravens have good depth," The Sage says. "I think the Bengals will come out and play well. I don't see the Ravens jumping on them. But it's a tough place to play and the Ravens are going to pound it, trying to get momentum for the playoffs."
How tough of a place to play? The Ravens have lost just once at home this season and just 23 times since 2000. The Bengals have been as successful as anyone down there with Palmer 4-2 against them.
"Both teams are very familiar with each other," The Eye says. "The Bengals go in there with some confidence after winning earlier."
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
QB CARSON PALMER VS. RAVENS FS ED REED
Big Bird sees it more like "Carson Vs. Himself" against a Ravens team that has lived for years on turnovers. Since Lewis brought that Ravens mentality to Cincinnati in 2003, Baltimore leads the NFL in points off turnovers with 820 and the Bengals are fifth with 742. They always seem to make it hurt and Reed always seems to be the instigator. Two of his career TDs off picks have come against Palmer.
"Reed has the ability to hide," The Eye says. "He can get behind a linebacker and all of sudden the quarterback can't see him. He knows what you're doing as well as you know what you're doing. Palmer has got to be careful, and he only has to go back to last year."
They're still talking about that pick around these parts when Reed opened the scoring down in Baltimore with a 52-yarder for a TD. Given the coverage, the down, and the distance, there was no explanation for him to be where he was. But Palmer is more successful than most at defusing him. He's 6-3 against Reed and 9-3 against Baltimore. No brain surgery here. In the three losses he's thrown four picks. In the nine wins, he's thrown just five.
"Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers," Bird says. "That's what always decides this game."
The Sage says this one is a classic example of why the quarterback holds such a high position in the NFL.
"I hate it when I hear this stuff that Carson has to be a game manager," The Sage says. "They say, 'We're putting too much on him.' They have to. That's what a quarterback as good as Carson has to do: make average receivers great."
FB CHRIS PRESSLEY VS. RAVENS MLB RAY LEWIS
This is only Pressley's fourth game with the Bengals but he's clearly had an impact in their approach and effectiveness in the running game the last two weeks, when he's been on the field about 30 snaps in each. It is The Kid vs. The Hall of Famer, the 24-year-old vs. the 36-year-old.
Lewis isn't the beast he was 10 years ago, but he's close enough. He's still not only the spiritual leader of the NFL's fourth-best run defense, but he still dishes it physically. He's still at his best sideline-to-sideline and it's going to be a challenge for the 5-11, 260-pound Pressley to stay on the block. Pressley isn't a great athlete, but straight ahead he'll blow up defenders. Of course, Lewis is going to Canton because of such collisions. So let the games begin.
Even if the Bengals can't grind much on the ground against Baltimore, and nobody does, they still have to pound it to keep the Ravens blitz packages at bay. Much like they did last week against San Diego when they kept feeding Benson even though he was getting less than three yards per carry. That prevented the Chargers No. 1 sackers per pass from getting even one.
And the run is going to be huge in the red zone, where the Ravens have allowed only 16 touchdowns, one shy of the NFL lead. The doggedness with the run last week paved the way for the Bengals' four red-zone TDs last week, putting them over 50 percent for converting in the red zone since late last season.
TE REGGIE KELLY VS. RAVENS OLB JARRET JOHNSON
This should be rookie Jermaine Gresham matched up with Johnson in the run game, but he didn't practice all week. Still, this is a great chance for Bengals fans to observe why Kelly has been so valuable in his eight seasons here, a run that many think is over with the emergence of Gresham.
"Reggie's size and attitude blocking have almost made him like another tackle," The Sage says.
The 6-3, 265-pound Johnson possesses big-time strength and The Eye says, "He's key in what they do. They haven't really been able to replace Trevor Pryce, a guy that plays both (end and tackle) and now they rely pretty much on Jarret and Suggs."
LT ANDREW WHITWORTH AND RT ANTONY COLLNS VS. JOHNSON AND RAVENS OLB TERRELL SUGGS
Big matchups up in pass protection. Suggs, a perennial Pro Bowler, is two sacks away from becoming the all-time Ravens sack leader. But he has yet to get one in six games against Whitworth.
"Suggs has great explosion and speed," The Eye says. "He likes the head and shoulder fakes, and Whitworth is a smart guy that doesn't go for them. And Whitworth is a big enough guy that if he gets his hands on Suggs, he slows him down."
This figures to be Collins' third straight game of extensive work and the numbers don't lie. His strength is pass protection and Palmer hasn't been sacked in the last two games. Two weeks ago he blanked Cleveland's Matt Roth after Roth touched the Bengals for two sacks back in October and Johnson is a similar blue-collar, high-effort, go-to-the-whistle guy, although some say Johnson is a better athlete than Roth.
WR JEROME SIMPSON VS. RAVENS CB LARDARIUS WEBB
The Small School Bowl pitting Simpson's Coastal Carolina vs. Webb's Nicholls State.
The Bengals are hoping they've got a guy that can contribute regularly after Simpson's breakout 124-yard game last week. Webb is the fastest and most athletic of the Ravens corners that comes off the bench to play outside when Chris Carr goes into the slot.
The conventional wisdom is that the Chargers were caught flat-footed, not thinking that the two backup Bengals receivers, Simpson and Caldwell, were faster than Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Now with the tape and T.J. Houshmandzadeh giving them the word, there will be no surprises.
"This is a much bigger test for Jerome," Bird says. "The Chargers corners are better, but the way San Diego played, they gave them the pass, and they weren't worried about the deep ball. The Ravens don't play it like that and the X-factor is Reed."
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
RB RAY RICE VS. BENGALS WLB KEITH RIVERS AND MLB DHANI JONES
Rice has been a one-man wrecking crew of late, both catching the ball out of the backfield and running it for explosive plays while racking up nine games this season of combined 100-yard games receiving and rushing. The Bengals have allowed the Ravens three touchdowns in the last three games and Rice has two of them, one on a catch-and-run-48-yarder. It's simple. They have to tackle him.
"He's got powerful legs and since he's short, he's tough to get leverage on," The Eye said. "It's hard to get a good shot on him and those legs allow him to run out of tackles."
The Bengals backer did a great job running down Chargers scatback Darren Sproles in coverage last week, particularly Rivers, even though he's playing with a painful foot injury. They're similar players, but Rice is stronger.
The Bengals have done better at not allowing the big play since they yielded five plays of at least 42 yards against the Saints four weeks ago. They've allowed just one run of plus-20 in the last three games and they allowed no passes of 20 last week against a Chargers offense that came in with more than 60.
FB LE'RON MCCLAIN VS. BENGALS SLB REY MAUALUGUA
It is always a slugfest and given that the Bengals give quarterback Joe Flacco a hard time, look for them to pound it. Never mind that Rice rushed for 153 yards against the Saints two weeks ago and the Ravens are in full smashmouth mode.
"You know that's what Marvin is preaching this game," The Sage says. "That's the way to beat the Ravens. Run the ball and stop the run. If you stop them from running, that stops Flacco from play-action and going long."
The Bengals have become much stingier against the run. In the last two games they've allowed 3.4 yards per rush after allowing 4.6 yards in the first 13 games. It has been reflected in the red zone of late, where the Bengals have climbed to eighth in the league while staging goal-line stands in each of the last two games.
LT MICHAEL OHER VS. BENGALS RE MICHAEL JOHNSON
A nice matchup between a lead actor in the 2009 draft (Oher in the first round) and a supporting actor (Johnson in the third). But Johnson is making a name for himself, too. The Ravens like to run unbalanced lines to the left and smash it. Johnson showed he's more than a pass rusher when he made the third-down play on last week's stand. But Johnson can be a factor Sunday in the pass rush. The Ravens like to max protect, but are only 23rd in the league when it comes to allowing sacks per pass.
"I think Mike does well in this matchup with Oher because of his athleticism," Bird says. "Get him upfield and make a move on him inside. There's no question that Johnson can out-athlete him, but he can do that to a lot of guys."
The Eye: "Their young defensive ends give the Bengals the edge over the Ravens offensive line."
CB JOHNATHAN JOSEPH VS. RAVENS WR T.J. HOUSHMANDZADEH
There are other matchups to watch. Certainly Joseph remembers Derrick Mason running past him for the only Ravens touchdown back in September. And newcomer Keiwan Ratliff looks to be getting a heavy dose of the best Ravens receiver, Anquan Boldin, in the slot.
And Houshmandzadeh has been relegated to just 28 catches as the third receiver, usually on the outside.
But Houshmandzadeh is the third-leading receiver in Bengals history, and what could be more interesting than that? Joseph, Ratliff and Leon Hall know his game as well as their own, but Joseph didn't practice this week and that may press Jonathan Wade into the lineup.
And Houshmandzadeh is up to his old tricks. Last month he caught his 600th pass on a 56-yard TD bomb. Last week he supplied the cushion with a TD catch in the 20-10 win over Cleveland. Of his 479 catches in the last six seasons, 300 have gone for first downs.
"He might just be getting three or four catches a game," The Eye says. "But one or two of them are a big play in the game."
Can you imagine how jacked up Houshmandzadeh will be on Sunday on third down with the game on the line?