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Hobson's Choice: Cold wars

Q: As we sit at 9-4 now I am wondering if we can win the division. We still have to win one game or Baltimore has to lose. Baltimore looks great and we have to play in San Diego, home for Kansas City and to New York for the finale. The way Palmer played the Vikes and injuries on the defense, can we win one more and if we do, can we win in the playoffs with miserable accuracy from our quarterback?
--*George N., Stamping Ground, Ky.

GEORGE:If the Steelers come up with any of that Hines Ward pride, they should give the Ravens a game at home Dec. 27. It will be riveting to see how Pittsburgh responds to Mike Tomlin in such a game because they were totally disinterested against Cleveland. But, yeah, with a home game against Chicago this week and a finale on the road in Oakland, the Ravens have a good shot at winning out depending on the Steelers psyche.

As for Bengaldom, the numbers say they ought to win the last two in lousy weather. The Chiefs are 28th defending the run and if the Bengals don't get the division Sunday in San Diego, there'll be plenty of incentive to beat the Chiefs at home Dec. 27.

First, it avoids the finale in The Meadowlands being a must game. It was a game that looked like it was in the bag a few weeks ago to one that now shapes up like it could be a 3-2 final. A death struggle between the Jets' first-in-the-NFL run game vs. the Bengals' No. 3 run defense. And the Jets are No. 1 on defense and going against the Bengals' No. 5 defense. Both passing games have struggled, but you figure Palmer has got to be able to outduel Jets rookie and USC descendant Mark Sanchez.

No, he hasn't been accurate lately, that's for sure. I know he'd like to have back that fade to Chad in the end zone on Sunday that he underthrew. But this is not all him. It looks like he needs to develop more of a rapport with this new crew of receivers. The passing game, of course, is the talk of Bengaldom.

Q: I know we have a "new identity" on offense, but it seems to have sacrificed the rhythm of the passing game. Do you think it is time they concentrate more on getting Carson Palmer and our offense going?
*--Rico R., Groveport, OH

RICO:The passing game was damn near iambic pentameter about a month ago when the offense racked up touchdowns on eight of nine possessions against the Bears and Ravens using the same I.D. they have now. Is it any coincidence that since Chris Henry got hurt on that 10th scoring drive against Baltimore when they had to settle for a field goal with him on the sidelines that they have scored just five touchdowns in the next 23 quarters?

Henry's loss hurts the passing game in two areas: The vertical game with his speed and red-zone touchdowns with his height. When Henry got hurt, the Bengals were leading the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage at 18-for-25 for 72 percent. Since then, they are 4-for-16 at 25 percent.

Even though it didn't look pretty, the offense was operating efficiently enough to score when they had to with a passing game that was good enough to get Palmer into the top five of TD passers after his five-TD game against Chicago. Okay, okay, it's the Bears. But he also threw three touchdowns against a Packers defense that is rated No.2 in the NFL (No. 3 against the pass), and threw for nearly 500 yards in two games against  Baltimore's No. 8 defense, so this style did yield some good pass numbers against good defenses before Henry went down.

The style is OK. It is why they're on the doorstep of a division championship. But some substance is missing without Henry. It's pretty clear with him out of there; defenses are sitting on the receivers.

Q: I know we have a great running attack but the lack of downfield passing is really starting to wear on me. Most teams with good running attacks are able to throw the ball downfield on play action (i.e. the Chargers). I know that we lost Chris Henry, but in 2005 Chad was a huge downfield threat and I don't think he has lost a step since then. Don't you think that we need to utilize the talents we have (Carson's arm and Chad's speed) a little better?
--*Josh, Carlisle, Pa.

JOSH: You have to answer an e-mail from the town where the great Jim Thorpe once played for Pop Warner. Thorpe is not only the hero of the 1912 Olympics but also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's first class in 1963.

They are using what Chad's got. God love 'em, if it wasn't for him this pass offense might be back in the Jeff Query days.

The problem is they haven't been able to use anybody else. Either Chad is the only one Palmer trusts or is the only one consistently getting open because in the five full games since Henry got hurt, The Ocho has 21 catches for 298 yards and two touchdowns. In that same stretch the other four wide receivers have combined for 26 catches for 293 yards and no touchdowns.

Plus, Sunday was another example of defenses that lined up in order to take away Chad and the long ball, which the coaches are saying is happening pretty much every week. The Vikings, Palmer said, triple covered him at times with press coverage, linebacker underneath and safety over the top. Somebody else, as they say, has to step up.

Q: How can the passing game be anything other than a liability when 3 of the 6 WRs on the active roster have no catches this year (and only 1 career reception among them) and the only 2 TEs are Foschi and Coats? The Bengals have done nothing to upgrade the WR position after Henry's injury and nothing to shore up the TE position since early in training camp. Why? I don't get it. Of the 8 receiver positions on the roster, the only significant contributors have been Chad, Caldwell and Coles. Are the Bengals really committed to any kind of effective passing game?
--*Jackson H., Blue Ridge, VA

JACKSON:They were certainly committed to a passing game in 2008 when they took Jerome Simpson in the second round to replace Henry and Andre Caldwell in the third round to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and in 2009 when they gave Laveranues Coles $7 million a year in free agency.

To me the question isn't why didn't they upgrade at the receiver position, but why hasn't there been more production from a $7 million man, a second-rounder and a third-rounder? I mean, Henry goes down and the only downfield guy they have left, Simpson, can't get dressed? Quan Cosby is a nice returner, but at 5-9 they don't see him contributing on a regular basis in the pass game. (Size is why they didn't take DeSean Jackson.)

I don't know what more they could have done at tight end. They lost their No. 1 and No. 2 at the worst possible time. A week into training camp. Tight ends are a premium anyway, so you can't find a solid two-way guy like Reggie Kelly even in March. You may not like the fact they drafted an injured project in Chase Coffman until next year, but he wasn't going to help them anyway in '09. If Kelly and Utecht didn't get hurt, he wouldn't be an issue.

Heck, the fact they're getting this much out of Foschi is a credit to both sides.

You're right. The question starts when Henry went down. But at that point I think they felt like they had to rely on guys that already knew their system, rather than signing a guy like Joey Galloway so late. They had already done the move. But it was in the '08 draft when they took Simpson. The fact he hasn't been able to get on the field is a killer.

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