Pundits: Playoff window open, but closing fast

Posted: 8 p.m.

With the Ravens selling nobody as a complete team, the .500 Bengals still have a shot to make the playoffs only if they work out their locker-room demons over the second half of the season that begins Sunday.

And that's when they better start against the 6-2 Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium.

Such is the take of the informal Bengals.com pundits panel chaired by CBS studio honcho Boomer Esiason and presided over by NFL Network staple Solomon Wilcots, both former Bengals.

"Sunday is a crossroads game because they have to take care of business at home," Esiason says. "With Denver and the Colts on the road you've got less than a 50 percent chance there. They're still a dangerous team. They're still viewed as a legitimate playoff contender."

Clark Judge, who covered Sunday's loss in Baltimore for CBSSportsline.com, senses "it's a team in disarray that has to stop the bleeding," and Fox-TV NFL insider Jay Glazier says it is up to players and not coaches.

"Now that the Steelers have so many (six) losses, the Bengals have the best chance to win the division," says ESPN's Merril Hoge. "I'm just not impressed with Baltimore's offense. The Bengals still have both the Ravens and Steelers to play at home and once they get that offensive line solidified they'll be able to make a run.

"Take away those early turnovers," Hoge says of Sunday's early 14-0 hole, "and the Bengals are 10 points better. No question."

ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli also covered Sunday's game and came away mushy on the Ravens but also wary of the Bengals frame of mind.

"Believe me, I'm not sold on Baltimore and I think Sunday's game showed why," Pasquarelli says. "They should have put the game away a lot sooner than they did, but all they were able to do was score field goals. Still, at some point, the Bengals have to find a way to flip the switch on that offense. And they certainly are a team that doesn't handle adversity well.

"I've seen the Bengals twice the last few weeks, and they've got me scratching my head because they're obviously missing something and I can't put my finger on it."

Join the club. Pasquarelli, after charting Ravens running back Jamal Lewis' career against the Bengals, was sure his angle was going to be that Lewis found a way to run over them again.

Instead, the storyline for the second straight week is that the opposing quarterbacks, the Falcons' Michael Vick and the Ravens' Steve McNair, outpassed Palmer.

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Palmer

But it's not all Palmer's fault, the pundits say, who agree that his knee injury is one of the reasons his numbers are down. The only things he has more of this season than at last year's midway point is interceptions (albeit only one more with six compared to five) and sacks (23-12).

He had more touchdowns (16-12), more attempts (267-258), more completions (186-158), a higher completion percentage (69.7-61.2) and more yards per throw (7.62-7.28). But his 89.3 passer rating is good enough to win, right?

Hoge and Wilcots are quick to defend Palmer.

"I think the whole thing begins and ends with the offensive line and the injuries sustained there," Hoge says. "Compare it to last year when I don't think there were three changes on the line. Now this year Eric Steinbach played three different positions in one game alone. There have been at least three times every game when they've had a chance to throw it deep and they haven't been able to because pressure didn't let it happen."

Although there has been much discussion about Palmer protecting his front knee from defenders and thereby not following through and sailing the ball (led by ESPN's Ron Jaworski), Hoge and Wilcots are livid at the officials for allowing the defense to go for his legs in direct violation of the rule.

"I think maybe there were some throws in the Atlanta game that, yes, clearly he was protecting himself but for the officials not to be able to see that crap, I don't understand it," Hoge says. "Especially after what happened (the roughing the passer call against the Bengals) against them down in Tampa Bay."

Wilcots wonders if Palmer's mechanics would be just as flawed without surgery because of the pressure he's getting, since he's had to step and throw awkwardly from time to time as his line copes with coming together.

"Atlanta definitely tried to rattle him by going low," Wilcots says. "I thought he looked a little more comfortable against Baltimore."

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Adams

There is disappointment among the punditry with certain players on defense. Guys like defensive tackle Sam Adams and the starting secondary haven't lived up to their press clippings.

"I thought Sam would have a much bigger impact than he's had. I haven't seen him do much," says Pasquarelli, but Wilcots thinks injuries have exacted a heavy toll there.

Particularly at safety, where Dexter Jackson suffered a severe ankle sprain in the second week and Madieu Williams is just a year removed from playing only four games because of a shoulder injury.

"Sam's hurt and I guess that's a disappointment but what can you do when you bring a guy in who you expect to do big things and he gets hurt?" Wilcots asks. "Same thing with Dexter. And you really have to look at a guy like Madieu almost like a rookie. I'm sure he hasn't played 16 games yet at free safety because they moved him around so much as a rookie, and then he got hurt, and losing that year last year, it really set him back to that rookie year. You can't look at him as a third-year guy."

But the defense isn't the reason the Bengals are 4-4. Not after giving Tampa Bay just 14 points and basically holding the Ravens to four field goals.

"Nobody thought they were going to be the '85 Bears, but they've done a decent job," Judge says. "Somebody has to figure out what's going on in that locker room fast when you've got one of your best players wondering what direction the team is headed. I agree with Chad. They have to get him the ball. For Chad Johnson not to have a 100-yard game yet, something is wrong."

Some believe what's wrong is Johnson is always complaining about not getting the ball after a loss.

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Johnson

"I know this," Esiason says, "Ocho Cinco wouldn't be taking place in Indy, New England or Denver. Look, I don't think Chad is malicious and he's not Terrell Owens or Randy Moss. But when you're losing, it brings a negative connotation and it makes it difficult when you're trying to do something as a team."

When Pasquarelli covered the 17-14 win over Carolina two weeks ago, he was appalled at the attitude that permeates a chip-on-the-shoulder locker room and is defensive at every turn.

"I know they feel like they got screwed last year because they lost their quarterback in the playoffs, but this is a new year," he says. "They play a little too high strung."

Wilcots believes you are watching a team evolve much like the 2001 Seattle Seahawks and the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers did before they reached the last Super Bowl.

"So what if they don't make the playoffs this year? Are you going to throw away the keys and the car, too?" Wilcots asks of the Bengals. "Look at Seattle. They wanted to fire Mike Holmgren. They lost a playoff game in overtime, and then they lost in the playoffs the next year at home to St. Louis. Then they went to the Super Bowl. The Steelers went 15-1 and even had to grow some.

"People forget; this is still a young team. What separates Indy and New England from the rest of the league is that the coaches and players have been together a long time and they believe and trust in each other."

Glazier says the Bengals have to look at the Panthers of 2004 who started 1-7 and came back, only to miss out on the playoffs the final week of the season.

"The players have to decide. It's not up to Marv," he says of head coach Marvin Lewis. "They have to decide if they're going to let their frustration take over and throw in the towel, or come back with more resolve. They're good enough. They just have to find a rhythm on offense. The question is if they have enough time."

As Wilcots says, "Anybody who thinks coaches control the locker room, I've got another thing for them. It has to be the veterans. Does the coach have an office in the locker room? A desk? He passes through there just like (the media)."

Esiason, who controlled two playoff locker rooms back in the day, finds himself always laughing now at the hysteria.

"They're still a good team," he says. "I would imagine they are still ranked in the top 15. You are what your record says you are in this league. Right now they're a team that has yet to put together one solid game, but they are fully capable of putting several together like last year.

"Believe me, a win over a good San Diego team and they'll feel like a million bucks."

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