Pundits: Playoff longshot

Posted: 6:40 a.m.

The Czar and The Judge won't count them out. The Sports Leader and The Nation's Newspaper say they're looking at the same scenario as last season. The King says they don't have a shot.

But as Marvin Lewis stood in the most important huddle of his coaching career, all believe Bengaldom is at a boiling point. They are worried about the Bengals psyche heading into the bye at 1-3. It's a record in which only one team from the AFC Central/North has rebounded from to get into the playoffs since 1990.

So says a forum of pundits culled from a pool of national football writers on Tuesday. After viewing the angst-filled 34-13 loss on national television Monday night to the Patriots, the pundits also agree the Bengals defense is a major reason the team is 9-14 since it clinched the North on Dec. 18, 2005.

"That's what you keep hearing from league people; even before the season began," says Clark Judge of CBS Sportsline. "They just don't have enough defense."

"It's not like this is the Indianapolis defense and the Colts are waiting for Bob Sanders to come back," says Jarrett Bell of USA Today. "But it's so early, how can you count anyone out? This has been a crazy year. Who would have thought Cleveland would be where it is and San Diego would be where it is?"

John Czarnecki of FOXSports.com says he doesn't think the Bengals can make the playoffs not only because of the lack of quality depth but also because of what he calls "internal problems."

"I don't know Chad (Johnson), but it seems to me that is a problem," Czarnecki says. "Chemistry is so important because you only play so many games and there are so many bad things that can happen that you have to fight through.

"But their next four games, yeah, they could go 3-1 and be right back in it. But the question is, will they?"

lewis_marvin.jpg

Lewis

The numbers say the best they can do is 8-8. This is the fourth October bye for head coach Marvin Lewis and the fourth time he's gone in either 1-3 or 1-4 and his team has finished 8-8 all three previous seasons.

But...

"The numbers say they have a shot," says Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com. "It looks like New England and Indy in the AFC and everyone else and there is going to be more scrambling over there than people thought. Their schedule is condusive to it and they very well could be looking at what happened to them last year at 8-8 or 9-7 and going into the last weekend waiting to hear."

Judge says the next four games: at Kansas City, home against the Jets and Pittsburgh, and at Buffalo "are going to be the whole season. They can win all of them and be right back in it. Plus, they are going to be getting a lot of people back after the bye and you can't write off that offense. Obviously, the AFC North is a crapshoot, but they have to get in gear now."

The blowup between quarterback Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson after an interception has certainly affected the way the pundits are looking at this team, but they don't think it's a killing quality and think it can be overcome.

"When I visited with Marvin this year at training camp," says Peter King of Sports Illustrated, "you could tell in his voice that he was tired when he talked about the maturity of his team. I think it's an issue. But I don't think what happened Monday night is big enough to blow it all up. That stuff happens during a game. The bigger issue in my mind is the defense. No matter how good that offense is, you just can't keep winning games 45-30."

"You can't help but fall in love with that offense," The Czar says. "Carson is a classic dropback quarterback and Chad and T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) are so good and Rudi (Johnson) is a consistent back. But the teams they have to beat, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, have that kind of defense you need."

Czarnecki, like all of Tuesday's forum members, are admirers of what Lewis has done in Cincinnati. But they feel like after Monday's implosion he's now facing his biggest challenge in five seasons.

"It's going to be very interesting to see if he can keep this thing together," Czarnecki says.

Lewis' first chance after his postgame tirade Monday night came Tuesday on what had been originally a day off. But he called a 4 p.m. team meeting instead in the wake of what transpired against the Patriots.

"The thing is, they seem to have been dealing with this all the time, so I don't know how much it affects them," Bell says. "I know it's happened before because every time I cover one of their games it seems like Chad is always in the middle of something. Every game for me, anyway. It depends on what happens now. It is an emotional game. Something like that can just be a blip."

The pundits seem more concerned about the defense. The King says the Bengals didn't do enough in the offseason. Pasquarelli isn't sure how much they could have done.

"They've put a lot of money in that offense and they've drafted on defense," he says. "A lot of teams build through the draft. Not many use free agency. The best teams really don't. You have to trust your draft, develop and coach your players, and you have to be patient. And at this point, I'm sure they are looking hard at those drafts."

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