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Hobson's Choice: December title

Q: What is your prediction for this Bengals season? How will we do? I haven't heard a prediction from you. A lot of people expect more of the same (underachieving), but I expect 10 wins and a shot at a playoff run. I think we have the talent and potential, it is just time to finally turn that potential into reality. Thoughts?
--Alan, MacQuarrie, WI

ALAN: They'll do two things a Marvin Lewis team has never done, beat Pittsburgh at home and finish with a flourish, and go 9-7 to win the division after the NFC East and AFC South bloodies the AFC North.

I agree. The preseason looked like a disaster, but you can't go off any of it. Yet if the offense is only going to play like it did against Arizona and Frisco last year, forget it.

Of course, they have to go 3-1 in September if this prediction has any shot. They really must be 2-0 if it's going to play out. So that means Sunday's opener is slightly bigger than big.

But September certainly plays to their advantage, doesn't it? It may take a couple of weeks for The Ocho and Co., to get in a groove, but isn't it a gift to play the offensively-challenged Ravens and Titans in the first two weeks? Not to be 2-0 would mean this program has to take some major stock.

Before they play the Browns at home Sept. 28, they go to Jersey to play the Super Bowl champion Giants. Yeah, I know, you can already feel the bruises of Brandon Jacobs, but take heart. The Bengals haven't lost to the Browns in Cincinnati since '03.

After that, it's making sausage, but the Steelers and Browns have to come out of the same grinder. October has a bye, but also games at Dallas and Jersey again against Brett Favre. On Oct. 19, the Steelers start a stretch of three out of four home games.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the Jaguars and Eagles are coming in after them and it would behoove them to finally master Pittsburgh at PBS. And they really have to win that one road game in that stretch, at Houston.

So I've got them 6-7 heading into the home game against Washington, the game in Cleveland, and the season finale against Kansas City at PBS. All winnable.

That would make them 3-1 in December and 9-7 overall when their best December under Lewis is 3-2. They did win their last two games last year, but they were out of it and the wins came after the worst loss of the year, the 20-13 game in Frisco.

But if they have to do things they've never done under Lewis, this is a different team than he's ever had.

With the arrival of Mike Zimmer as his most seasoned defensive coordinator, they get a guy who made a name for himself working against these NFC East offenses.

Plus, it's a younger team now and reconstituted differently when it comes to the emotional baggage they lugged around the last couple of years.

It's not the same team that went though the Wild Card Meltdown in '05 and lost the last three to kick themselves out of the '06 playoffs.

More than half the roster has been churned. A majority of players on the 53 weren't on the AFC North championship roster. A total of 35 weren't in Detroit the day they clinched. More than half (27) didn't experience the '06 fold.

Of course, it all comes down to if they can get into December like they did in '05 and '06.

If they can, a lot of these guys aren't married to the past, particularly on defense, and the guys on offense should by now have scars instead of wounds in using '05 and '06 for experience.

So, 9-7 and a division title.

Also, Alan I tip your hat to your "hometown," a tribute, I think, to one of the finest American writers who died young in the '50s.

Q: Does it churn your stomach like it does mine to see Willie go to a division foe? I feel like our offense has struggled to get the ball moving, and sending one of the smartest O-Lineman we had to a division opponent sends shivers down my spine. How bad is this situation?
--Scott D., Washington, N.C.

SCOTT: Oh yeah. It's as bad as seeing Kenny Anderson in Steelers stuff.

You would think the people who said he can't do it any more physically are crossing their fingers and praying he doesn't play 80 percent of the snaps to revive a Ravens running game and give them a better record than the Bengals.

One thing about it. By the end of this season we'll know. Were the Bengals right? Or was he right and he's got $3M left?

How bad is it? If the other guys play like they're supposed to play and stay healthy, it's not bad. It's good.

They see Anderson's replacement, Stacy Andrews, like a young Willie and are paying him as such, and he's got to play like that.

You've got first and second rounders on the left side and a highly-paid guard in Bobbie Williams, and they have to play like it and they'd be the first to tell you they didn't do it in the preseason.

The problem I see is an injury. And this is no shot on Scott Kooistra, the guy that now replaces Andrews if he goes down or if someone else goes down and Andrews has to move to guard. Kooistra is a solid backup.

But if there is any injury at all, it probably means the first move is Andrews out of right tackle. Why not have Anderson as your first line of defense? We're talking about a guy that was Pro Bowler two years ago.

OK, it gets back to they don't think he's healthy.

So we'll know. We'll find out. We'll find out if he was healthy enough and we'll find out if the other guys are as good as they believe they are.

Whatever happens, it's going to be out there in the cold light of day for all to see.

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