Pundits lined up with Bengals

Posted: 5:50 a.m.

The third-place prognosticators of June and doom have been replaced by a playoff drumbeat.

If the Bengals did anything before they take their bye, they convinced the NFL pundits they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender by starting their season with two road wins and a 3-1 record.

"And they have yet to play their best game," says CBS studio honcho Boomer Esiason. "To be 3-1 without playing their best football I think is a very good thing, not bad."

As ESPN.com senior NFL writer Len Pasquarelli says with the 1-2 Steelers going on the road to play San Diego, "Don't you think they'd take 3-1 in Pittsburgh?" and his teammate John Clayton has revised his doubts and puts the Bengals in the Baltimore-Seattle-Chicago-and-possibly-Philadelphia tier chasing the Colts.

"When I first saw the schedule, I thought it was going to be rough for them," Clayton says. "But they've started with two impressive road wins. I've got New England ranked ahead of them right now, but don't pay attention to that. I think they're a better team than the Patriots; sometimes when teams meet it just doesn't match up. But I'm not sold on New England just because they beat Cincinnati. They still don't have any wide receivers."

Clayton thinks injuries caught up to the Bengals last Sunday in the Patriots' 38-13 rout, but the major injury that put the Bengals in most preseason doghouses has barely surfaced.

"I love Carson Palmer. As long as the Bengals have him and their wide receivers, they're going to be in it until the end," says Pete Prisco of CBSsportsline.com. "They'll make the playoffs. There is Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and then you're looking at a guy like Palmer."

Not everyone had the Bengals starting in the dumpster behind the Steelers and Ravens. Prisco predicted they would finish second in the AFC North and win a wild-card berth. Peter King of Sports Illustrated picked them to win the division, and he sees no reason to change it.

"A lot of coaches look at the season in quarters, like Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith," King says. "Given Carson's situation and the schedule, anybody would have taken 3-1. I think it's pretty clear his comeback has been amazing, and you know he's going to get better as the season goes along."

Esiason had to laugh at the local uproar following the Pats' blowout. He's been at the center of a few Doppler Ohio River Valley storms.

"Everybody has to take it easy," Esiason says. "They win two tough AFC road games. They win in Pittsburgh. They're 2-0 in the division. Carson has come back. Life is good."

King only has to be reminded of the state of siege in which the Patriots found themselves after a disappointing home loss to Denver. "New England was in crisis and they came back seven days later and played the NFL's most complete game of Week 4," he said.

If there are any red flags with the national people, it's the run defense rather than pass protection. Although CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots has a tough take after the Bengals surrendered 15 sacks in the first four games.

"Yeah, I think Richie Braham's loss (at center) has hurt them, and I was agreeing with people at the beginning of the year that it is one of the two or three best lines in football," Wilcots says. "But there are guys with names on the back of their jerseys that aren't playing like those names have played in the past. They're good, but they're not playing well. The rush numbers tell you that."

Esiason, the only pundit alive that had Braham in his huddle (Jeff Blake isn't an announcer yet, right?), knows the loss of the center is key but "the guys around the young kind have to step up and I think in the end they're going to have enough depth and talent there," he said.

But it's giving up 406 yards on the ground in the past two games that have the pundits pondering with two games left against Baltimore and one more each with rush powers Atlanta, San Diego, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

"I think Marvin Lewis has done a great job assembling talent and Palmer is a special guy, a difference-maker," Pasquarelli says. "But the one thing Marvin hasn't been able to fix since he got there is the run defense." Esiason says, "Defense, like always, is what it's going to come down to."

Wilcots thinks the Bengals are a legit Super Bowl contender, but he also feels they have to take another step beyond beating the Steelers.

"They need to get that championship-team mentality," Wilcots says. "They need to play with that confidence, that 'We can beat anybody.' They have to pass that threshold. They've got everything else. Great coaching. Great weapons. They're there."

Like the rest of our panel of pundits, Wilcots heartily endorses Lewis' move of benching troubled wide receiver Chris Henry last week and feels it came at an opportune time.

"Say he plays him and they win and they go into the bye 4-0," Wilcots says. "Now you've got guys during the off week going out and getting absolutely ripped because, 'Why not? He's not going to do anything to me.' It had to be done and it was the right thing to do."

Esaison agrees with his Super Bowl teammate. "There has to be the same standard for everyone in that locker room," he said. "When there's not, that's when you have problems."

The pundits agree that the problems with Henry and suspended middle linebacker Odell Thurman haven't served as distractions, and Clayton thought some reporters were badly off the mark when they chalked up Sunday's blowout to Thurman's DUI with Henry in the car.

"That was a classic case of a game between a team that had to have it and a team that was coming off an emotional victory on the road," Prisco says.

Pasquarelli has never been one to believe that off-field problems result in on-field distractions. "You can't tell me that a cornerback is lined up out there before the snap thinking, 'Oh boy, Chris Henry isn't out here,' " he said.

If the September schedule ended up not looking as bad as it did in June, now the experts are casing October in October. The Jacksonville-based Prisco has seen plenty of Tampa Bay, the next foe on Oct. 15.

"Oh yeah, they're struggling with the new quarterback and the offensive line is having problems," Prisco says of a game that kicks off a stretch that includes two straight home games against Carolina and Atlanta before a road game at undefeated Baltimore.

"I'm still not sure about Baltimore," Prisco says. "They're about a minute away from being 2-2."

Of course, you could say the Bengals are a fumbled punt from 2-2, the Browns are a late field goal from 2-2, the Patriots are a Corey Dillon arm nick from 4-0. ...

It goes on and on.

"That's the one thing about the NFL," King says. "Every week in 16 cities there is euphoria and in the other 16 cities it's disaster."

Prisco is looking ahead to October and maybe making one of his calls to this city now that he thinks his Wild Card prediction looks to be secure. He thinks the Bengals can go 3-1 again during the next month.

"They should be feeling pretty good about themselves there," Prisco says. "Three-and-one and a game in hand on Pittsburgh."

Then he laughed because he picked the Steelers to win the division.

"So maybe it will be reversed, but it's got to be working out better than my pick in the NFC West."

"Arizona."

Welcome to the fragile world of punditry.

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