Posted: 4:50 p.m.
With more apologies to the King (SI's Peter) and Sir Lance-A-Lot-of-rational sports talk (WLW's McAlister), here are five things I Think I Know I Believe after being cooped up so long with minute-by-minute post-divisional analysis that I feel like I have to get it confirmed from both ESPN and Fox that I am still alive.
With all due respect to the fine reporters that cover the Bengals daily and belong to the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America, I think I know I believe the Bengals.com 2009 MVP is running back Cedric Benson.
The PFWA's selection of cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph as co-MVPs is an excellent choice. It is hard to quibble when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says his scheme begins and ends with them and the unit ends up being ranked fourth in NFL defense. And we all know the defense carried the Bengals. Plus, the scribes note, in the two games Benson missed in November the Bengals split and still had two different 100-yard rushers.
But Benson had a much bigger burden to carry on his back. He lugged the Bengals' philosophy switch from pass-first to run-first and he had to do it with the most anemic passing numbers around here since near the Akili Smith days. Plus, he was playing behind a first-year offensive line and while they played better than expected, he gave them a lot of help with second-effort runs and yards after contact.
And he had huge TD runs at big moments. The 23-yard run that got the Bengals back into the Pittsburgh game early in the fourth quarter at home. The 28-yarder against the Ravens in Baltimore that gave them the lead in the third quarter. The 47-yarder in the Wild Card game that cut it to 21-14. In a year there was no safe nine-yard throw to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, he was big.
But go beyond the numbers. Ever since head coach Marvin Lewis got here, he's been searching for an identity for his offense. Combined with his offensive line and a revamped playbook, Benson was brilliant enough to give it to him and set a blueprint for next season.
Pretty valuable stuff.
But we also salute Hall and Joseph, the best cornerback tandem in Cincinnati in a generation.
SAN DIEGO BENGALS?
The Bengals were just absolutely sick about losing to the Jets because they were so confident they could beat the Chargers out there after they put 24 points on San Diego last month. So after watching how the Jets beat San Diego this past weekend, I think I know I believe the Bengals had to be vomiting at will. Especially when the Chargers kicker, Nate Kaeding, blew two chippies a la Shayne Graham.
If you're a Bengals fan, how do you take it? The Chargers were the hottest team in football, and yet their vaunted quarterback struggled against the Jets as much as Carson Palmer did the week before. Their defense crumbled on third down against a rookie quarterback just like the Bengals did. The most accurate kicker in their history picked the worst day to have his worst game, just like the Bengals.
How do you take it? It just shows you how inept the Bengals passing game is. If they could have got anything, ANYTHING, out of the pass, they probably win. The Bengals rushed for 110 more yards than the Chargers against the Jets the week before and threw for 100 yards less. Yes, Carson Palmer didn't have his best game in the Wild Card game. But Philip Rivers isn't as bad as he was against the Jets and neither is Palmer.
(Is it just me, or did both the Bengals and Chargers make a strategic error by failing to use their scatbacks in the passing game? San Diego running back Darren Sproles, who is ridiculously fast, caught just three balls and ran it just three times. Bengals rookie running back Bernard Scott, we know what he can do, had no touches running or catching. They're the kind of guys that loosen up great defenses, and in this age of the Wildcat hopefully that is an offseason priority for the Bengals. Get No. 28 more touches. Particularly if they're not happy with the production of the receivers behind Chad Ochocinco.
STATS DON'T LIE
There is no question you need to pass the ball to win in the NFL, but I think I know I believe you can't go overboard with the notion that you have to "Dome" your offense like the Saints and Vikings. This is a bad year to make the argument because New Orleans or Minnesota is going to the Super Bowl and either could very well play another indoor team in the Colts that finished dead last in rushing and still could have easily gone 16-0.
But that is an anomaly. Four Super Bowl champions this decade have had passing teams ranked 21st or lower. Only two Super Bowl champions (the '03 Pats and the '06 Colts) had top 10 passing numbers. And three of the last five champs have finished in the top 10 in rushing.
There is no question that their supersonic passing schemes have put the Vikes and Saints a cut above everybody else in the NFL. But for how long? Not long enough to steer away from the tried and true formula of running the ball mixed with the pass. The pass probably wins it this year, but the reason the Colts won't win the Super Bowl is because they can't run it. It's a big reason San Diego isn't in the title game, it's why the Patriots lost their first home playoff game since Tom Brady was a baby, and it's a factor in why the Ravens made the playoffs and the Steelers didn't.
The NFC title is going to come down to what Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson do on the ground.
Yes, you've got to be able to throw it. And you have to throw it way better than the Bengals are throwing it. But you can't live on the pass alone.
You can see why Bengals SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga's USC teammates, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, made Pro Football Weekly's All-Rookie team at linebacker. And you can see why the Redskins' Brian Orakpo of Texas made the other linebacker spot because he had 11 sacks. But I think I know I believe Maualuga should at least get an honorable mention.
Orakpo, a college defensive end, got switched to SAM backer this season and got a lot of his sacks coming off the edge. Kind of what the Bengals envisioned for David Pollack. This is not to say Orakpo didn't deserve it, but it is also to say not to forget the kind of solid year Maualuga had. He's a different type of player than Orakpo, but he also switched positions – from the middle to SAM - and maybe he should be viewed more as a linebacker than Orakpo. Despite a season-ending broken leg that basically took him out of the last two games, Maualuga ended up with 13 more tackles than Orakpo, according to NFL.com.
No question that the Bengals need more explosive plays from Maualuga. Forced fumbles. (He had two.) Sacks. (He had one.) Picks. (He had none.) He talked about it himself heading into the offseason. But just because he didn't make the All-Rookie team, don't forget about him. He was one of the top run-stoppers on a team that finished among the top run units in the league and they clearly missed him against the Jets.
Give him an honorable mention.
All members of Bengaldom no doubt watch the playoffs in the same way. How does it relate to the stripes?
If you were watching the Dallas-Minnesota game in the second quarter, I think I know I believe you might have had a flashback to Dec. 18, 2006 when Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams left in the second quarter with a calf injury, leaving the inexperienced Doug Free to tangle with Vikings All-World sacker Jared Allen in the din of the Minny dome.
You didn't have to watch the rest of the game. You knew the rest. You'd already seen it. The Cowboys had no shot.
Back on Dec. 18, 2006, the Bengals needed one win to make the playoffs and they were inside the RCA Dome playing the Colts when Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson went down for the game on the first series. That meant the little-used Stacy Andrews had to go in on a line that already had rookie Andrew Whitworth at left tackle because of injury to Levi Jones. So you had two kids playing the Colts' Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the AFC's best sacking tandem at defensive end, and Indy had the added advantage of the crowd noise.
Game. Set. Match.
There are just some things you can't overcome and losing a veteran tackle against a prolific sacker on the road in a dome is one of them.
If you didn't know any better, these were the Cowboys of the '90s with three Super Bowl titles. But they might as well have been soup bowls once Dallas was forced to help Free on Allen with tight end Jason Witten. It not only took one of quarterback Tony Romo's most potent weapons out of the passing game but it allowed the other defensive end, Cincinnati's own Ray Edwards, to go nuts with five tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss, six hurries and a forced fumble.
Even America's team can't defy the football gods.