Hobson's Choice: Not that odd

Hi Geoff, What specific area do the Bengals need to improve apon the most to go from just missing the playoffs to making a run in the playoffs? If one specific area stands out please try to outline what must be done to improve the area of concern, If you feel that a collection of areas need to be addressed please try to highlight those issues. In your opinion what percent chance do we have at making the playoffs? Please try to forcast who we will battle with to fill out the playoff field and which players will ultimately be the most responsible(if you feel comfortable saying so) for the team reaching the playoffs.

I believe our rush defense needs to improve more than anything else and that we have a 70% chance to make the playoffs. Also, we will battle the Steelers, Ravens, Jets, Jaguars, Chargers and Broncos for the final four spots in the field and that our o-line and d-line will ultimately determine our fate.
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David T., Bowie, MD. DAVID:**
The Bengals' offense must limit game-changing turnovers (foes scored six defensive touchdowns last season) and they must keep running backs from taking over the clock (six rushed for at least 123 yards last season) if they want to reach the playoffs. At least on paper they've made off-season moves to fix those two huge items.

Another year of experience for quarterback Carson Palmer should cut down on those defensive touchdowns. You'd like to think after 13 NFL starts and an off-season of watching tape, throwing the ball right to Asante Samuel in the flat or chucking it into triple coverage with James Farrior lurking backed up on your own goal line just isn't going to happen.

At least not as much.

Plus, the re-signing of wide receiver T. J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson should go a ways in preventing turnovers because of familiarity. I mean, those two guys had the ball 60 percent of the time last season and accounted for nearly 50 percent of the offense. They combined for 2,567 yards on 455 touches. That's out of 5,359 on 761, so that ought to help.

I agree with you on the offensive line. Just look at last year's 2-5 start and the line's corresponding health. (Albert Haynesworth looked twice as good because he was playing a one-armed Eric Steinbach.) Always has been, always is, and always will be one of the big reasons for a team's success. Especially in a division with Jonathan Ogden's Ravens, and Alan Faneca's Steelers.

But, for argument's sake, let's buy into Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' mantra. Get off the D-Line's back and point your finger at all eleven because "it's 11 guys that play defense."

OK. I'll buy it for now. I still think the biggest move of the Bengals' offseason has been Lewis making Chuck Bresnahan defensive coordinator. Not only because it was a look-in-the-mirror-and-at-the-crossroads kind of decision for Lewis when he blew up his own hire in Leslie Frazier, but also because it spoke to a major problem in '04.

Defenders simply had too much on their plate. It's hard to tackle when you're not sure where you're supposed to be, or if you don't know your support is with you. Tentative play is just as costly as bad technique when it comes to tackling, and Bresnahan has made no bones about saying that simplicity is the hallmark of this scheme.

This is a defense with very good players. John Thornton and Kim Herring have been good enough to contribute regularly to Super Bowl defenses. Deltha O'Neal and Tory James have been to Pro Bowls. Justin Smith and Brian Simmons are marvelous athletes who were first-round picks for a reason. Hey, nine of the 11 starters are first- or second-rounders from here or elsewhere. (Tackle Bryan Robinson and end Robert Geathers are not). Somebody has to get something more out of them and it sounds like Bresnahan's "Let Them Just Play," is a good start in an attempt to control the running game.

Before you talk about the defensive line, the rookie linebackers are clearly going to be under the gun early.

Palmer and Bresnahan have closed the AFC North gap. Only one play-off team is coming out of there as the Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers, all grind to edge each other out at 9-7 and 10-6. The Steelers are going to miss Plaxico Burress more than they think, and more teams are going to take a page out of the Pats' playbook and take a shot at their cornerbacks. In Baltimore, defense is still king but the Ravens can't truly rule until quarterback Kyle Boller figures it out.

Percentage? Who knows? But I give the Bengals the edge to win it at 10-6 because they have the best quarterback in the division (which they also had last season) that is now teamed with a defense that won't be confused and is faster with the three Georgia guys (Geathers, Thurman , Pollack) in the lineup.

And the schedule works out just right. They play the two teams they have to beat to get into the playoffs in the final two games of the season when they host the Bills Christmas Eve and the Chiefs New Year's Day. But they get out of the gate so well at 9-5 they just have to split to make it.

Odds?

Probably like everything else in the NFL.

50-50.

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