Hobson's Choice: Built for a playoff run

Who-Dey! My question is how far do you see this Bengals team going into the playoffs? If we do get Pittsburgh the first game of post season I see a win, but as far as the other teams how do you see the black and orange fairing? Can the D hold up against the AFC's powerhouses? Do you think we're capable of pushing ourselves into the superbowl?
**Rob, Cincinnati

You can get apprehensive about their playoff prospects pretty quickly because every contender runs the ball so well. But they can reach this Super Bowl not because their offense is dominating but because their defense and special teams have a field-position groove going that wins playoff games.

Sure, you cringe a bit with the likes of the Steelers' and Broncos' offensive lines, the Patriots' Corey Dillon, and the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson beginning to paw the dirt in the running game for the playoffs.

But since the Steelers rolled them for 221 yards rushing eight weeks ago, the Bengals have been competent against big-league running games. The Bengals did a better job than the Bears in hemming in Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis and Fast Willie Parker, and the Colts' Edgerrin James didn't get off in a big way against them. And in the first six quarters against Jamal Lewis while they were building a 39-9 edge on the Ravens, they held him to 86 yards on 29 carries. They're playing the run well enough to win, and they should get back defensive tackle Bryan Robinson after that foot injury looks like it's going to take him out of the last six regular-season games.

But the thing about this defense is going back to what cornerback Tory James said in Detroit after the game. James, a vet of 11 post-season games, said the playoffs are all about turnovers, and these guys get them. How many times have you seen the higher seed get whacked because of turnovers? They may have rolled up more yards and more time of possession, but. . .Just look what the Jets did in San Diego in last year's Wild Card game.

The Bengals have that innate ability of whatever it is to get the ball back, and that is going to be a huge factor in this thing before it's over, especially on the road.

And special teams is winning the hidden yards, particularly on kickoffs, where they are second in the NFL covering kicks and third returning kicks. That's huge on drive starts. The specialists also shown all year they have the capacity not to blow games for them.

Chalking up a win over Pittsburgh isn't right because they're the most lethal of the potential No. 6 seeds. They've got a quarterback that wins, a solid offensive line, a defense that doesn't let you run, and they don't give away leads.

Now enter the Bengals offense. If the Bengals had a mental block against the Steelers, the offense ripped it away two weeks ago by scoring 38 points on them in their own building. The Bengals offense is good enough to dictate games and take teams out of what they want to do against them, which is running the ball.

Beating the Steelers isn't a lock, but the Bengals are in a great frame of mind playing them. They'll want to win that just as badly because they won't want to lose all that capital they gained in the division with that win two weeks ago. Some air would be released from that balloon if the Bengals lost to the Steelers in a home playoff game.

And that home game is huge. Head coach Marvin Lewis has done a heck of a job establishing the home field and they are 15-8 at PBS in his three seasons here.

Most of these guys were here when they beat Denver last year and Kansas City in '03, so there won't be any mystique working there. Carson Palmer never got to finish his shootout with Tom Brady in Foxboro, and the Pats still remember his 202 yards passing in two and a half quarters before Palmer got hurt. Plus, that game would be here.

And, you have to feel there is no lack of confidence against the Colts. The Bengals haven't lost the four games since losing, 45-37, to the Colts in a game that now seems to have invigorated them. After playing the NFL's best team so closely, they realized how perfect they have to be when playing the premier teams.

There may not be a better team built to beat the Colts on the road than a Bengals team that is a game away from being their best road team ever at 7-1 and can go point-for-point with them in a shootout.

Plus, they gained 164 yards rushing against the Colts and backup running back Chris Perry would be back for that hypothetical AFC title game in Indy's dome. Obviously they have to play better on defense and can't allow Peyton Manning the free reign they gave him last month.

But their ability to be multiple on offense and drain the clock gives Indy's defense as many problems as Manning gives the Bengals' defense. The Bengals may be the only team left in the AFC scrum looking forward to playing on that fast track as much as the Colts.

Yeah. They've got a chance at going back to Detroit.

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