Collinsworth hopes to call No. 3 battle

Updated: 5 p.m.

Even though he lives just across the river, has season tickets to Paul Brown Stadium, and is a Bengals icon, Super Analyst Cris Collinsworth doesn't get a chance to study his old team unless he and his partner in the NBC booth, Al Michaels, draw them on Sunday night.

This week's flex against the Jets took care of that and after watching tape of the Bengals defense Thursday morning Collinsworth still isn't quite sure he's believing what he's seeing. But as usual, he's calling what he sees and he says if the Bengals have a chance to get the AFC's No. 3 seed, they ought to go for it.

"It's hard to think of the Bengals being a ball-control, defensive team," he says. "It's fun to watch a team and who they are and what they've become. They look an awful lot like the old Baltimore Ravens. They don't have those dominant pass rushers, but they've got good cover corners and linebackers that can run."

Collinsworth knows how long it's been since a Bengals defense was this good. It was 26 years ago. (You've got to remember, son Austin, the Highlands High football star headed to Notre Dame, wasn't born when he was a player.)

He was in his third season as a Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver and their defense was ranked No. 1. That team didn't make the playoffs despite Collinsworth's career-best 1,130 yards. But he thinks this team, with a defense ranked No. 4, can make it to the Super Bowl.

"Why not?" he asks. "They run the ball, they stop the run and they nearly beat San Diego on the road and they're the hottest team in football. And their matchup with Indianapolis might be just as good. (The Colts) have played as many close games as anyone. I think of teams like the Giants that could run the ball and got hot late in the season. And I'm thinking in the back of my mind that the (Bengals) have got that one big passing game out there. They've got the stuff to do it with (Brian) Leonard coming out of the backfield. And I'm bullish on (Andre) Caldwell. I think he's a legit No. 2 receiver."

Collinsworth, a fellow fast Florida receiver, thinks Caldwell has shown enough flashes with his speed and clutch catches that he'll become more of a factor as the games go on.

But what has impressed Collinsworth more than anything is the offensive line. He remembers seeing head coach Marvin Lewis at an event around town in the spring and asking him, "I can't name three of your offensive linemen. How are you going to be there?"

"And he told me, 'Trust me, we'll be fine,' " Collinsworth recalls. "And I asked him, 'Marvin, are you sure about that?' And he was right. Kyle Cook has really come on at center and I've been impressed with Andre Smith. I think right now they're probably better run blockers than pass blockers but they've played well for a group of guys playing together for the first time."

As usual, Collinsworth is saying what everybody is thinking when it comes to what the Bengals and Patriots should do in Jersey and Houston, respectively. Both have secured the home field for the Wild Card games, but should they go all out for the No. 3 seed? A Bengals loss seemingly guarantees a rematch against Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.

"There are 1,000 things that go into it, but I think a big thing is the health of your team," he says. "And no one wants to say it, but it also comes down to who do you want to play? There's no doubt Marvin is thinking about it and so is Bill Belichick. Baltimore is a possibility and certainly I'm sure there are others. But I'm guessing that getting the rookie quarterback is the matchup people want."

Collinsworth understands why Lewis covets the third seed and if the Pats lose, he thinks the Bengals ought to go for it. That's what he's hoping for, of course, because it supplies the most riveting TV.

"It's all about getting to the Super Bowl," Collinsworth says, "and if you want a second chance in San Diego because you feel good about how you played out there and if you're thinking that New England played Indy pretty much even in Indy and you think there's a chance you could host the championship game against the Patriots, that makes sense to me. That's what I'm rooting for. Go all out for it."

And Collinsworth can never resist one last shot at the conventional wisdom.

"When people are talking about watering down the game plan because you'll play the same team the next week, that's a lot of crap," he says. "It's the NFL. Everyone knows what every team is going to do."

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