Call it the Red Grange Factor.
As in, the Bengals locker room doesn't appear to be wrapped up in Carson Palmer's return to Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday (1 p.m.-700 WLW, 1530 ESPN, WEBN-FM 102.7) when the 3-7 Raiders appear. With half the roster not here when Palmer was a Bengal, he might as well be some long-away ghost from the past that left his name in the record.
There are more earthly concerns. The 5-5 Bengals are trying to get into December over .500 for the sixth time in head coach Marvin Lewis's 10 seasons and the pundits think they'll head to San Diego at 6-5 this week firmly entrenched in the playoff picture.
Like last week's game against the Chiefs the Bengals.com Media Roundtable calls it unanimously for Cincinnati, although some think Palmer can get some points on the board before the Bengals prevail. And one predicts the Bengals to get into the playoffs at 10-6.
Joe Reedy, who covered the post-knee and post-elbow Palmer for The Cincinnati Enquirer, thinks the Bengals have shut down the long ball effectively the last two weeks and doesn't see much breathing room for him.
Jerry McDonald of The Oakland Tribune has watched the Raiders give up 135 points in the last three games and doesn't know how they're going to begin to cover Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.
Bill Williamson, the AFC West think-tanker for ESPN.com, believes the Bengals have so much inside information on Palmer that they'll steal back whatever edge his arm gives Oakland.
And remember Pete Prisco of CBS Sports who predicted the Bengals would make it to the AFC title game? He says they're going to make the playoffs at 10-6 and lose only one of their last six games the rest of the way.
"The Bengals are getting it right on defense and they've got some young kids playing well on offense," Prisco says. "And the schedule is favorable."
Let's go around the table:
Going back to Dwayne Bowe last week and Victor Cruz two weeks ago, the Bengals have done a good job shutting down the deep ball and I think if the left side of the Bengals defensive line gets pressure on the right side of Oakland's line and makes Carson move, he's not that mobile. They're getting good pressure lately with tackle Geno Atkins bringing it up the middle and I think it's going to be good for them.
What's going to be interesting is that Raiders fullback Marcel Reece has been running well and catching it and it's a good matchup for Rey Maualuga and the linebackers. If there's one time this year I think the opponent has the advantage in special teams it's this game because of the way Raiders punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski can boom it. Janikowski can kick it from everywhere.
The Bengals offense is rolling. It's a lot like the Kansas City game. They get the running game going, control the clock, get A.J. a touchdown or two.
THE EDGE: BENGALS, 27-17. It's more for the fans because it gives them a chance to get closure (on the Palmer trade demand). I think everybody has moved on. It's been a year and a half. It's a different defense than the ones he faced. Cornerback Leon Hall and the (defense) might have an advantage because they faced him for years. And Bengals defensive assistant Hue Jackson, the head coach of the Raiders last year, knows Reece and tight end Brandon Myers. Everything is happening in the conference that the Bengals need to happen and that December stretch we thought was going to be the mother of all bad stretches doesn't look that bad.
Can the Raiders cover Green? Can they run the ball at all? I doubt it. They've had trouble all year in the secondary and their top two running backs won't play this week. And when they do run it well, they have to bail because they're so far behind. They're looking at Carson Palmer to carry them and he's been OK but they don't really have enough around him to do enough.
The secondary has been a complete mess. They just can't cover anybody. They moved Michael Huff from free safety to corner and he's hit and miss. They dumped their corners last year and signed Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer and those are OK players but they had an injury history and both got hurt. Bartell just came back, but Spencer is on IR and it's been piecemeal back there.
They don't get much pressure and that hasn't helped them back there. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour has been hurt, has missed the last few games, and won't play this week. They don't play as much man as they used to. They blitz some and play zone, but the personnel hasn't played well. The Bengals receivers have the edge.
They're OK protecting Palmer. He's been pressured some, but they're a good screen team and they do a good job throwing to their backs and the tight end. Myers can find open spaces over the middle and is the guy that Palmer looks for when things break down. That's how they've countered the pressure. Reece is a really good receiver and he's not just a dump-pass back. He can catch it 30, 40 yards downfield.
Their wide receivers are talented and they can make some big plays. Denarius Moore is in his second season and has been their best guy, but he and Palmer have been way off. He's been going one way and Palmer has been throwing it the other. Palmer says that it's his fault and he's the veteran and he's got to get on the same page with him. But last week they threw it to Moore seven times and he had one catch for nine yards. You wouldn't think that would be happening this late in the season, but it is.
The one bright spot is they ran the ball well last week against New Orleans. Reece had 103 yards and over five yards a carry, but they got so far behind they had to throw. The big thing out here is that when Hue Jackson came in as the offensive coordinator two years ago, he ditched the zone-blocking scheme and running back Darren McFadden's career took off. Then when Dennis Allen became head coach this year and he brought in Greg Knapp as his coordinator, he brought it back and McFadden went back to struggling. His health hasn't helped either and he and backup Mike Goodson aren't going to play this week and the third guy, Taiwan Jones, has been limited.
THE EDGE: BENGALS, 31-27. People out here, at least the fan base, they look at the record and ask, 'Why the heck did they make the trade?' But Palmer has carried them. They didn't want him to carry them, they wanted to be balanced but they don't have it. The Raiders have to prove to me they can stop somebody and get some turnovers. If they can scrape together a couple of turnovers, they've got a chance.
Palmer is the classic example of how passing yardage is overrated. He's putting up real big numbers, but you can't say he's having a really good year.
The Raiders offense doesn't have much rhythm and the zone blocking isn't helping much. He's got intriguing receivers, but they're not really experienced and he's going up against coaches that know his every move, his every habit. Players go against their former teams all the time, but he's going against Mike Zimmer and Hue Jackson and I expect the Bengals to have a very educated game plan. Very spirited.
The perception is still that the Bengals won the trade. I did a poll that came out 70-30 and I was surprised it was that lopsided because it was an AFC West poll and a lot of Raiders fans voted. But look at it. The Raiders are 7-13 since the trade.
THE EDGE: BENGALS, 27-16. Can the Raiders win? Sure, they played well in Atlanta. But the Bengals have to make a lot of mistakes and the Raiders are going to have to show something their defense hasn't shown in the last few weeks and that's coming up with consistent stops. They weren't a deep team, anyway, and now that they have a lot of injuries, arguably they're the thinnest team in the league.
The matchup to me is the Bengals offense vs. the Raiders and Oakland has had a real hard time in the secondary. I think A.J. Green has a monster game. You can make an argument he's the rest receiver in the NFL.
They can absolutely pressure Palmer. Geno Atkins is the best defensive tackle in the NFL. And their secondary is coming together and playing solid. People forget that they had a lot of injuries early and a guy that has played well the last couple of weeks at cornerback is (Adam) Jones. I think Chris Crocker has helped them at safety and we saw them using Nate Clements at safety in the summer and now they're doing it.
The Bengals are getting it right and the best thing about it is the young guys like wide receiver Mohamed Sanu are starting to play well. And this rookie center Trevor Robinson, he battles. He played well against the Giants.
THE EDGE: BENGALS, 27-17. I think the Bengals win big and I think they're getting hot at just the right time. The schedule is favorable for them. Indy is coming back to the pack and Pittsburgh is going to have issues. The big one is beating San Diego and they've done that before, and then they win until they lose one of the last two. The kids on offense are playing well. They don't have an explosive running back, but they have grinders and are OK there. If that's your only problem, you're OK.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Crazy? Carson Palmer comes back to town in a game decided by two punters?
Don't laugh. Cincinnati's Kevin Huber is having the kind of year that Oakland's seven-time Pro Bowl Shane Lechler is used to having.
Huber is on pace to set club records for gross yards (47.8) and net yards (42.4) and is now fourth in NFL net punting while Lechler is 23rd. Huber has drilled 21 of his 47 punts inside the 20 with only four touchbacks while Lechler has been able to get only eight of his 50 punts inside the 20 with seven touchbacks. Huber's plus-17 differential is tied for fifth and he's coming off a game against NFL leader Dustin Colquitt (plus-24) in which he got three more, two at the 4-yard line.
Lechler doesn't seem to be getting as much help as Huber. He's allowed the second-most punt return yards in the NFL while Huber is at 23. The Bengals have downed a league-leading 11 punts while the Raiders have done it only twice.
Still, Palmer figures to turn this into a pass fest and the Bengals seem ready for it matchup-wise. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Cincinnati's top three corners are ranked in the NFL's top 27 with third corner Adam Jones jetting to No. 12 off the last two games. Leon Hall (27th), who Palmer calls the best slot corner in the league, says the Bengals better be ready because the Raiders receivers are as fast as any the Bengals have played, and that includes the lightning crew from Pittsburgh.
But Palmer has done damage with short stuff to his backs and tight end Brandon Myers, which has to concern the Bengals and their coverage problems over the middle. It's a misnomer Palmer has been the second coming of Raiders icon The Mad Bomber Daryle Lamonica. His 7.3 yards per attempt is 14th in the league.
Although the Raiders are without their top two backs in Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, the beast-like fullback Marcel Reece is going to be a load. Reece is 6-1, 255 pounds and can run it (he had his first 100-yard game last week against the Saints) and has fewer catches (40-37) but more receiving yards (418-337) than Ravens Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. And Reece hasn't been just catching it in the flat with an 11.3-yard receiving average. Throw in his 4.6 yards per carry and the linebackers can't let him dominate. Now you know why Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis called Hue Jackson last year and asked, "Who is this guy?"
Maualuga and his linebackers have to play as well as they've played the last two weeks. The Bengals are getting plenty of help from rookies in this two-game winning streak, like Sanu, Robinson, right guard Kevin Zeitler and WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, so how about another? Maybe linebacker Emmanuel Lamur can help them in the nickel package.
And on offense, there may be another rookie to add to the mix in wide receiver Marvin Jones, the fleet fifth-rounder from Cal who is finally healthy. But the Bengals already match up pretty well against a Raiders defense that has been historically bad the last three weeks allowing 135 points.
The Raiders seem particularly vulnerable to the exploits of Green. They've allowed 20 TD passes while giving up a 101.3 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. Cornerback Michael Huff has allowed the second-most TD passes in the NFL with five and the other corner, Ron Bartell, was Oakland's injured reserve/recall guy after he suffered a shoulder blade injury in the opener and is playing just his third game.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is expected to make hay. In the last three games, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco and Drew Brees have combined to throw eight TD passes with one interception against Oakland, and all hit triple-digits for passer rating.
But once you get past all the stats, it's still a coaches league. It's an X-and-O league. Which team better prepares for which team?
And so it will be Sunday despite the Shakespearean drama. The Bengals have former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hard-wired into Palmer's game and, on paper, Bengaldom hopes that's enough for checkmate.