Updated: 9:45 p.m.
Boomer Esiason has worn a network blazer longer than he wore the striped No. 7, but once a Bengals quarterback, always a Bengals quarterback.
Esiason, one of the CBS studio honchos for "The NFL Today," got wind of Bengaldom's disenchantment of the passing game Wednesday and asked, "Doesn't anybody there remember how they went down the field in the last minute to score in Baltimore?"
Esiason is quick to praise quarterback Carson Palmer, not to mention his black-and-orange descendants that have impressed him so much with their grit and he pronounces them playoff ready even though he thinks they may have to wait until the last week to claim the AFC North despite dominating it all year.
Esiason never presided over a division sweep in the old AFC Central or a current franchise-best seven-game division winning streak. He did share a six-game winning streak with quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Turk Schonert from 1984-85.
"You had to be more impressed with the Bengals after watching that game Sunday night where Baltimore and Pittsburgh killed each other," Esiason said. "You got through watching that fight and you think, 'They beat these guys four times. The Bengals must be really good.' "
And he thinks they are.
"What I like best about this team is they don't get intimidated. They stick their foot in the ground and don't take anything from anybody," Esiason said. "I'm going to call them physical, tough, nasty. When was the last time you said that about the Bengals? Maybe 1990."
When they got old and injured all at the same time and still went 9-7 to win the AFC Central and win their last playoff game. You don't think the Bengals pass the ball now?
Two years removed from Esiason winning the NFL MVP, head coach Sam Wyche went to a four-corners offense to protect a battered offensive line and a defense that allowed 24 touchdown passes. Esiason barely threw for 3,000 yards, he threw it 82 times less than they ran it, Eddie Brown led the team with 44 catches (The Ocho already has 53 and Laveranues Coles 39), and five backs including Esiason had at least 49 carries.
In the last 11 regular-season games and the two playoff games, Esiason threw more than 21 passes three times and none in the last seven games of the year. The Bengals were 0-3 in the games when they took the hit and went over 21.
"In the last part of '88 we became a running team. We realized we could just pound people," Esiason said. "I have no memory of 1990. I can't remember one game from that year. But I know you wouldn't lie to me. The danger there is being able to pass when you have to do it if you're not used to doing it. And you've got the one guy (Chad Ochocinco) chirping even though he isn't saying anything bad.
"I think they can pass, obviously. Ask Baltimore. The one thing they're missing is the chunk plays, the 60-yarders you get all at once. That's why I think their toughest game left is Minnesota because they can hit you with the big plays as well as run it with Adrian Peterson. But, yeah, I like the way the Bengals are built. They're a more traditional team than they have been for a long time."
Esiason was sitting there in the studio at the end of last year when his CBS colleague, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, called the Bengals his team to watch in '09.
"He saw what kind of defense they had on the way," Esiason said. "They're just tough and physical and don't get run on. Like I said, look at the game on Sunday night with the two toughest teams in football, and the Bengals beat them both twice."
Esiason thinks the Steelers are so tough that they will win out and finish 11-5. In order for the Bengals to go 11-5 and win the North because of the tiebreaker, they have to beat Detroit and Kansas City at home and win one of their three remaining road games at Minnesota, San Diego or the Jets.
"Minnesota and San Diego are tough," Esiason said as he looked at the Jan. 3 season finale that should be the last game ever in The Meadowlands. "They ought to be able to beat a rookie quarterback, but you know that Raiders loss is going to come back and haunt them in some way."
If the Bengals win 10 games but not the division, would that get them into the playoffs? Not before Denver or Houston, which beat them head-to-head.
"They can definitely go a long way in the playoffs," Esiason said. "Maybe you don't want to go in as a top seed anyway. Look at what the Giants did when they won it. Look at how the Cardinals got to the Super Bowl last year. If you get hot at the right time, you can do it, and they've got a good team with a good quarterback."
DEADLINE DEAD?:When they've neared a sellout this season as the Thursday 1 p.m. deadline neared for a TV blackout (Denver, Houston, Baltimore), the NFL has extended the Bengals a 24-hour extension. But if the Bengals aren't much closer than they were Wednesday (more than 5,000 tickets left), the Lions game looks dark and the Bengals won't be seen locally for the first time since Nov. 9, 2003.
Which would be a tough break for Fox 19 in Cincinnati. In each of the last 78 TV ratings weeks that have included a Bengals game - starting with Carson Palmer's 24-point fourth quarter in Baltimore in 2004 - the Bengals have been the top-rated show in the Cincinnati market. * *
SCOTT APPEARS DOUBTFUL:Rookie running back Bernard Scott is hobbled enough on crutches and in a boot with his turf toe that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis says he'll have a new kick returner if Scott can't go. It looks grim just looking at him and Scott said he thinks he can play but he's not sure the trainers are going to let him. Yet Lewis won't rule him out.
"I think I can play, but I don't think they're going to let me play," Scott said before Wednesday's practice. "I guess we'll see. But I think I can play."
Scott got hurt on the first series of the second half when "someone rode up on my ankle and my foot was planted in the turf," he said. He did come back and came back strong to carry twice for 15 yards and return a kick for 27 yards.
Rookie wide receiver Quan Cosby, the club's punt returner, said he has been told to look alive this week pending a move to kickoffs even though the last time he fielded one this year was in the preseason against New England. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who had been the returner until Scott emerged with his 96-yard touchdown in Pittsburgh Nov. 15, said he'd like to get another shot after his fumble in the last minute led to the Raiders' winning field goal the next week.
Also, defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) said he's day-to-day after playing with a sprained medial collateral last Sunday. He made the start and played into the second half and had to leave in the third quarter. He says he'll be limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday before trying it Friday so the club can make a call. That's pretty much what he did last week.
Peko, Scott and rookie center Jonathan Luigs weren't on the field as Wednesday's practice began in the rain inside Paul Brown Stadium on the FieldTurf. Luigs, out of Arkansas, may be sidelined by shock. He has to wear a bright yellow LSU shirt Wednesday and Thursday after losing last weekend's bet to left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
"I'd like to get back there again; show them I can do the job," said Caldwell of returning kicks. "That's what you have to do."
Caldwell certainly bounced back last Sunday against Cleveland from scrimmage, anyway, when he made a superb layout catch on the sidelines for a 12-yard gain on third down that kept the lone Bengals touchdown drive alive.
"That was big. That was something you really want to do after something like that," he said.
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons is saving his kick return decision "until 1 o'clock Sunday."
Cosby is having a solid year returning punts with an 11.2-yard average that is seventh in the NFL and while he hasn't returned kicks in a regular-season game, he did plenty of it at Texas. A total of 73 times to be exact for a 23.7-yard average.
"The flight of the ball is totally different. From a punt standpoint the wind is usually a lot more of a factor. Hang time is definitely a big difference," Cosby said. "And the (tacklers) running down in their lanes. Usually you have a little more time in kick return."
Simmons loves that kind of experience and it's why he has no qualms about putting Cosby back there. Of course, he won't say if he will.
"It's not like he's lacking in experience. He just hasn't done it here recently. Put the next guy in if Bernard can't go," Simmons said.
"Quan can do it. He made some plays for us in the preseason. And I still have a bunch of confidence in Andre," said Simmons, despite Caldwell's two lost fumbles on returns this season.
Whether it is Scott, Caldwell or Cosby, Simmons knows he's going to get a mature effort out of Cosby. What he likes about him is how his decision-making has improved and points to the Cleveland games.
Back on Oct. 4 in overtime, Cosby lined up too deep to handle a bad kick and had to let it bounce past him. On Sunday in the last minute of the first half with the Browns punting out of their end zone, Cosby was in proper position to handle a bad hit and return it eight yards.
"We start at their 40 because he makes a play on it and it's a reason we get a field goal," Simmons said. "He's playing out all the situations. He's playing like a veteran. He's not bashful to come up and handle the ball and make big field position plays. Plus, he's a physical runner. Not all guys can return both punts and kicks, but he can."
Simmons is still raving about Cosby's last return Sunday, when Browns safety Ray Ventrone had Cosby lined up for a big hit and instead Cosby "buckled him" at the end of his 12-yard run.
"You catch it, you run with it, you follow your guys," Cosby said of kick return. "At the end of the day, all returns depend on what the other 10 guys do. Exactly. It's the same concept. Find a hole and help the offense."
AIR RAID?:Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown at least three touchdown passes in all six of his career games against NFC North teams. The Bengals are 6-0 with 20 touchdowns against just six interceptions and he capped it off with his career-best passer rating of 146.7 in the Oct. 25 win over the Bears in which he threw five touchdown passes.
Palmer has just two touchdown passes in the next four games, but the Bengals are also 3-1 and have run it 156 times compared to his 109 passes.
The Bengals have hit the NFC North for their two biggest scoring days of the season with 45 against Chicago and 31 against the Packers, and the Lions are last in the NFL in pass defense, scoring defense, and total defense, which would all seem to make Sunday ripe for a passing attack that would soothe the Paul Brown Stadium boo birds. Palmer isn't counting any chickens.
"Yeah, I mean that's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is all four teams in that division are all different," Palmer said. "They may play against each other twice a year, but they're all different teams and they all pose different threats offensively and defensively. Like I said, we're going to go about our business the way we go about our business, which is playing great defense, controlling the time of possession and running the football. We'll take our shots when we get our opportunities, but so far our opportunities have been running the ball, and if they give us the run, we're going to stick with it."
There are 32 reasons the Bengals won't go in trying to jack it up Sunday. Although it looks like they won't have Scott, running back Cedric Benson is going to be wearing No. 32 again for the first time since Nov. 15, when he pulled a hip muscle in the first half in Pittsburgh and missed the last two and a half games.
Before practice Wednesday he said he was loose and ready to go with an extra week of rest under his belt because he thought he was ready last week. So now if Benson resumes his pace of 95.4 yards per game, he'll finish with a career-high 1,336 yards and in two weeks get his first 1,000-yard season. Benson is also one 100-yard game away from tying the club season record of five, done eight times by five different backs.
Palmer knows all this.
"Those guys know what they're getting from Ced. Ced has proved it since he's been here a year and a half," Palmer said. "You give him a little bit of a crease, he's always going to fall forward or he's going to find that crease or run people over. He's going to wear a defense down; he's going to make defensive backs sore if he gets one on one with them.
"It's been like that that since he's been here. There's a little bit of excitement to see him. I'm fired up to get him back there because he's fun to hand off the ball to and watch him go and fun to watch on the highlight film when we get ready for the next opponent. I'm excited to have him back. I'm sure the offensive line is, because you know what you're getting with Ced."
CHAD OCHO RUN-INSYNCO:Even The Ocho is buying into the run-first philosophy. For some reason he's calling Benson's running style "Honey glazed hams," and he's talking about passing the dish Sunday even though he called for 50 passes against the Lions moments after the Cleveland win.
"'Dre, he was mentioning about what you told me to say about throwing the ball more," Chad Ochocinco said to Caldwell on Wednesday when asked about the 50 call. "We'll see what happens. (The NFL rankings) mean nothing. They could play great in the secondary. Similar to the week we went to Oakland and thought we were going to throw it all over the place because they play man-to-man but that wasn't the case."
Since the Ocho had 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns in that Bears game, he hasn't scored and hasn't caught more than five balls or had more than 67 yards in the four games since. If you forget last year (and he has), you have to go all the way back to the first four games of 2002 where he went four straight games without having more than a 67-yard game.
(The closest stretch is those miserable last three games in 2006 when the pass-first offense cracked in the heat of a playoff run and he had 37, 32 and 53 yards.)
But this isn't Chad Johnson, circa 2006. This is the placid, impassive Chad Ochocinco on the cover of a recent copy of The Sporting News.
"We've been successful in the run game. It's in our best interest to stick with the run," he said. "This week will be a good week for us to establish the running game and get Ced back in the grove again. And Larry (Johnson). I don't know what Bernard's status is going to be. And having Clive Owen."
Owen is the English actor that Ocho must think looks like third-down back Brian Leonard. You'd think his insurance would be "The Good Hands People," but it sounds more like GEICO because he's coming up with something every 15 minutes.
"The passes will come," he said. "The receiving corps, we're no different than insurance. When you need us, you can always count on us because we're always going to be there. If you want to throw the ball, we can throw it. We're setting ourselves up for the playoffs."
Head coach Marvin Lewis has not only banned him from doing touchdown celebrations (The Ocho says), but apparently he's putting the foot down on anybody that mentions playoffs because at this point he paused and asked, "Am I allowed to say that?"
But it didn't stop him.
"When you get to the playoffs and the postseason the key to winning is to control the ball and run the ball and that's what we're doing," Ochocinco said. "(Fifty passes) is not what we are. We are a Nebraska-style running the ball. We've got everything in but the option."
The Ocho insists the pass will be there when needed.
"The way we're running the ball right now, we can do what we want," he said. "Especially in the passing game. Whatever we decide to do, we can do. That's what I like. We can turn it on like a switch. Most people can't say that, but we can. Our receivers are awesome. Including myself. Pretty damn good."
SCHWARTZ SCOUTING LEWIS (AGAIN): This is one of those disciple games and rookie Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, a defensive disciple of both Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, is going to break his usual routine before Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium.
Schwartz, 43, doesn't usually speak to foes in pregame while Lewis is the polar opposite and makes the rounds. But given they are close, Schwartz is going to use the time to catch up with one of the people he says helped him make the transition in the offseason from Titans defensive coordinator to head coach.
"I'll probably make an exception just because we've known each other for so long," said Schwartz, who was a defensive assistant for three seasons in Baltimore when Lewis was the Ravens defensive coordinator.
At 2-9, Schwartz has been taking notes on the Bengals and he wants the Lions to finish last year like Lewis had Cincinnati finish last year.
"We can learn some lessons from the Bengals," Schwartz said Wednesday in his conference call with the Cincinnati media. "They were sitting at 1-11-1 and now they're 8-3 and 6-0 in the AFC North. That started last year in the last three games. They went out and beat Washington, they beat Cleveland, and they beat Kansas City. That's when Cedric Benson really emerged … (he) went and rushed for about 350 yards in those three games and they won all three of them. That sort of propelled them into this season even though it was a bad season for them last year. The way they finished helped them and we need to do the same thing."
Naturally, Schwartz has taken special note of a defense he sees rooted in those tough days in Baltimore in the late '90s when the Ravens suffered from salary cap purges.
"Obviously it's Mike Zimmer's schemes, but with a good head coach like Marvin Lewis there's a philosophy behind it, also," Schwartz said. "What they do is play great team defense. They rarely make mistakes. They don't give up big plays very often. They're a good tackling team and when that happens they're hard to score against.
"They aren't (ranked) particularly high in any area but scoring defense (No. 1) and that's the thing that matters the most. A diverse third-down package, they do a lot of things there, which has been a hallmark of Zimmer, and it's also something that Marvin has done in the past. Go back to his Pittsburgh roots. Marvin has always stressed team defense and Mike does a good executing that vision."
INJURY UPDATE: Scott, Peko, and Luigs were listed as not practicing. Benson (hip) and WILL linebacker Keith Rivers (calf) were back practicing full go for the first time since their injuries. The following were limited: Wide receiver Laveranus Coles (chest), safety Kyries Hebert (hip), defensive tackle Tank Johnson (knee), SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga (foot), defensive lineman Frostee Rucker (neck), cornerback Morgan Trent (knee).