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Hobson's Choice: Pundits, front runners all the same

Q: What's your thought on Marshall Faulk and Rod Woodson predicting the Bengals vs. Panthers in Super Bowl XLI?
**--Adam, Fort Lauderdale, FL

ADAM:** It shows how seriously the pundits take the Bengals with a healthy Carson Palmer and there is a good thing that there isn't a weight limit on the national bandwagon.

People were growling all offseason about the national guys short-changing the Bengals in their predictions, which, by the way, mean absolutely nothing because not a soul knows what is going to unfold around the NFL on Sept. 10.

But the big reason they sold the Bengals short is because they had no idea what the State of Carson would be. Now that it's pretty clear that Palmer is going to be, at the very least, pretty good, you've been able to see the shift coming ever since the Green Bay game.

Woodson. Faulk. A couple of guys in The Sporting News. I had one well-known national talking head tell me last week, "I think I was wrong about your boys."

The pundits are nothing if not the biggest bunch of front-runners since that Howard Dean candidacy came to a screeching end.

But that's what makes it so much fun.

Since Woodson hands out Bengals' compliments as often as an eclipse and Faulk is still doing handsprings over the Bengals drafting Big Daddy instead of him, it was surprising but telling.

Q: With the problems that the Chiefs have had with their defense even with the upgrades that they made to their secondary, how much of a role/impact do you think Chris Henry will play in Sunday's game?
**--Chris G., Loveland, OH

CHRIS:** A lot bigger now that T.J. Houshmandzadeh didn't practice this week with a bruised heel. It remains to be seen how much the Chiefs have upgraded that secondary. They've got two cornerbacks who have had great runs in Ty Law and Patrick Surtian, and Law is coming off a season in which he shared the NFL interception title with the Bengals' Deltha O'Neal.

But Law is 32 and doesn't have John Abraham any more and Surtain is 30 and is still looking for Jason Taylor. Except for 11-sack right end Jared Allen, the Chiefs don't have much of a pass rush and it seems to be a pretty big question if the aging Law and Surtain can keep up with the Bengals' young bucks.

What makes Henry so effective is his height and speed. They're just unbeatable in one-on-one coverage. Palmer never hesitates to go to him, so Henry is always a factor no matter what game it is.

Now, if T.J. can't play and Henry starts on the other side of Chad Johnson, we'll see what happens because they could just blanket both guys in a zone since Kelley Washington isn't known as a burner. At that point, it is Rudi Johnson's game.

In the two games Houshmandzadeh didn't play last season, Henry had a combined four catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.

Sunday will also be a good chance to see how Henry has come back from his torn posterior cruciate ligament, a serious injury even though he didn't have surgery.

Q: We all know the Bengals high-powered offense has what it takes and more to get our Bengals to the Super Bowl, but what about our "D"? Do you think the defense has improved enough to stop a hard- nosed smashmouth running game deep in December?
**--Chris, Williamstown, KY

CHRIS:** This is a perception-reality question. They stopped enough smashmouth running games last season to win the division. What stopped them from advancing was shoddy play against the big pass.

Don't count the Kansas City game and Larry Johnson's 201 yards rushing because that was an exhibition game.

So, there were only two games they got bowled over by the run last season and that was the 181-yard job the Jaguars put on them back in October and the 221-yard hurting the Steelers offered two weeks later.

But in the next eight games (a stretch that included Pittsburgh again, Jamal Lewis twice, Edgerrin James and Willis McGahee) the Bengals allowed just two teams to rush for more than 100 yards, and the Steelers pounded it 28 times for just 95 yards.

OK, in the playoff game the Steelers rushed for 144 yards, but it was the big pass plays that broke their back in that one and not the run defense.

That said, the addition of Sam Adams in the middle and Dexter Jackson at safety should end any lingering questions about their ability to stop the run. Every year Adams has played regularly since 2000, his defenses have finished at least eighth in run defense.

Plus, the addition of rookie tackle Domata Peko is going to be a huge plus in the line rotation, and the move of Bryan Robinson and Justin Smith back to their natural positions of left and right end, respectively, should be a huge help against the run.

Q: Larry Johnson was talking on Sirius Radio's "Late Hits" show Wednesday night, and he basically said that the Bengals had issues with tackling techniques. What are your observations as far as any improvement?
**--Ed, Columbus, Ohio

ED:** It's not technique. It's who is doing the technique. Plus, Larry has to know any similarities to the Bengals team that showed up there last year compared to the opener is going to be purely coincidental.

No question the Bengals got hammered with poor tackling last season out of their safety position, a result of injuries that allowed their starters to play just four combined games.

Now that they have basically two new starters in Madieu Williams and Jackson, they have seriously upgraded their tackling. It's the difference between Madden '07 and Strat-o-Matic.

Marvin Lewis did emphasize it in the preseason because he was appalled by the lack of wrapping up last season, but the best thing he could have done was get two guys in the middle of the field who are sure tacklers.

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