So here is the question, which I am sure you will get a lot this week: How paramount is this game with the Steelers? It looks as if they could run the table with the way they are playing right now. I just can't see the Ravens beating them. Also, am I really on the homer bandwagon if I believe the Bengals can run the table including a sweep of the AFC North?
*--Brandon B. Fairfield, OH
BRANDON: How tough is this division? The Bengals could sweep the AFC North and still not win the division. So while it is absolutely huge, it is absolutely not the ends of the earth, either, because so much can happen in the last seven games.
I'm with you. Pittsburgh has a much softer schedule and even if they lose Sunday they have a 13-3 or 12-4 whiff about them right now because they have a better shot at running the table in light of the Bengals' three brutal road games in the last 21 days of the season: Minnesota, San Diego and the Jets.
Throw in that the Bengals have never won in Minnesota and East Rutherford and are 4-9 in San Diego, and the Steelers don't play a team over .500 and, well, it won't be all Nat King Cole cozy in December.
But you have to love the way this Bengals team plays on the road. They are better built for December and the road with the commitment to the running game and how well they play defense. A running game and defense always travel well in the NFL.
Q: It seems Coles has slowly climbed into the offensive scheme. Is it the media making more out of this or is he just a first-year guy with the Bengals and feeling out his "job" in the offensive game plan? Palmer says he is a veteran that is smart and plays hard. Now with Henry gone will Coles start to have more games like he did against the Ravens and become another weapon for Carson?
*--Kevin M., Cincinnati, OH
KEVIN: The media didn't make much of anything. Coles struggled mightily early and while he got bashed publicly, Carson and Marvin Lewis stood by him, always talking about his professionalism, smarts and all-around game. Sunday you saw why.
Remember, going into last week's game Henry had three more catches than tight end J.P Foschi, so it's not like they were throwing to him all the time. Yeah, they lose a great weapon, but it doesn't impact Coles all that much. You have to be encouraged by how elusive and quick he looked against a good defense. As old as he looked in September, he looked fresh and spry in November. It takes time to get comfortable in a new system, even for a guy with 655 career catches like Coles. But in the end, that experience will help the Bengals down a very tough stretch. And his willingness to block is a big reason why the running game has been so effective.
Q: Will the injury to Chris Henry make room for Jerome Simpson to finally be active? Or will they still go in a different direction, like signing a free agent? Also, I think you should do a 2,000 word column about Marvin's aggressiveness on fourth down this year. He deserves credit for that. I think that change is underrated as one of the things turning around this team.
*--Cory B., Wintersville, OH
CORY: They'll do one of two things: Play Simpson or sign Maurice Purify from the practice squad. They won't go get a new guy at this point. They need a guy that knows the system. Simpson offers traits they lose with Henry, such as speed and the long ball. But Purify is a big man (225 pounds) with good speed who has won the confidence of Carson and can help them more on special teams than Simpson. Coaches and DBs love the way Purify practices and he's given the defenses good looks during the week, when he usually plays the role of the opponent's leading receiver. He's played everyone from Brandon Marshall to Derrick Mason and to much acclaim.
Just because the Bengals didn't make an active roster move Tuesday doesn't mean they won't by the end of the week. They may be seeing how healthy they get out of practice before making the call.
Thanks for the story idea. I'm sure the first handful of the 2,000 will be, "I believe in our defense…"
Q: While I'm loving the success of Cedric Benson and our running game, I'm starting to worry we are getting lopsided with who gets the carries. Benson is on pace for about 400 carries this season, which history shows gets a back worn out before the end of the season. We need him healthy for a potential playoff run. I know Scott may be used less because rookies struggle with pass blocking, but why not get Leonard more involved to spare Benson a little more than we are now?
--Curtis D, Ft. Loramie, OH
CURTIS: My thoughts exactly and I think Marvin is aware. You can't blame him for using Scott barely at all in the games against complex 3-4 defenses - twice each against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as well as Denver and Green Bay - because if the backs don't know what they're doing or don't have the experience, it is disaster in pass protection. Plus, Leonard (groin) hasn't been fully healthy since the first Baltimore game, but Lewis made it sound on Monday that he was better and would start getting some carries.
It'd be surprising if Scott didn't play more against Oakland and Detroit, but you know what Marvin is thinking. There is no rest for a playoff run until you've got a playoff spot locked up. And offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski made a good point last month talking about this topic. There never really is a perfect time to make that switch, because you've got a back that gets better as the game goes on.
(And Benson would have had about 8-10 fewer carries if Scott didn't get hurt in the Chicago game.)