Updated: 8:25 p.m.
The playoff scenarios have been piling up through the day like the possibilities in a close presidential election, but one thing is always certain in Marvin Lewis' Bengaldom.
He's not going to make any early calls on how his team is going to approach Sunday night's regular-season finale in The Meadowlands against the Jets on NBC.
But then again, coaches are saying what coaches are supposed to say (nothing) and players are saying what they're supposed to say ("We want to play"), when they've already clinched a home playoff game for Jan. 9 or 10.
"You want to win first and foremost," safety Chris Crocker said Monday. "That would be determined once the game gets going and we see where we are. There are a lot of things that factor into those decisions. It's so early. We're prepared that each of our starters is going to play and hopefully if we have the ballgame in hand he'll pull some guys out. We feel like as a defense we're ranked (fourth) and we still want to improve on that. We don't want to take a step back."
But reality says something else. Like it would be surprising if the Bengals rushed back Crocker, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, and defensive tackle Domata Peko, who has missed the last four games with a knee injury, with a playoff spot wrapped up.
"If the leg feels good, I see no reason why I can't go," said Peko, who says he'll practice for the first time since the Dec. 7 scope on Wednesday.
No doubt the Bengals can use one of their top run players. Before Peko sat out against Detroit on Dec. 6, the Bengals had allowed just two teams to rush for more than 100 yards. Since then it has happened twice in the last four games.
"I'll be ready to roll," Peko said. "It feels really good ... I'm excited about playing in my first playoff game. ... I'm excited about getting out there and hitting somebody again."
Crocker says he feels good, but he also says it's up to the coaches.
Conventional wisdom says the Bengals would rest banged-up guys like Crocker and Peko even though the 10-5 Bengals would like the No. 3 seed behind No. 1 Indianapolis and No. 2 San Diego because if they win that Wild Card matchup, that would most likely send them back to San Diego to play a Chargers team that beat them on a field goal with three seconds left eight days ago. It is just as likely that having the No. 4 seed would send them to Indy, where they have never beaten Peyton Manning.
A New England victory in Houston secured Sunday four and a half hours before the Bengals and Jets kick off would all but assure the Pats the No. 3 seed and the Bengals No. 4. Plus, if the Jets beat Cincinnati, that would set up a rematch the next week at Paul Brown Stadium in a scenario that has happened only five times since the 1970 merger and only once (the 1993 Broncos) has a team lost to the same team back-to-back.
So how much would the Bengals want to show on Sunday night knowing they get the Jets in as soon as six days? And how much do they want to expose quarterback Carson Palmer to a Rex Ryan defense ranked No. 1 overall and against the pass?
"We're going to take all those things into consideration," Lewis said at his Monday news conference.
And he should have all the info he needs by Sunday night because by then all but two teams would have ended their seasons.
If the Pats lose, the Bengals have to decide how important that No. 3 seed is. Gregg Rosenthal of ProFootballTalk.com reports that a New England win isn't an automatic clinch for No. 3. The Patriots would have a commanding five-game edge in the strength of victory tiebreaker if the Vikings beat the Bears Monday night, he reports. So PFT is saying a win makes it "a high likelihood" the Pats would be No. 3.
"Just another Sunday," Lewis said. "We'll approach it as a game we need to win."
But asked if his plans would be impacted by what happens earlier Sunday he said "it could."
His agenda could also be affected by his years of working with Ryan, the first-year Jets head coach who made his name as a quarterback-wrecker working under Lewis in Baltimore and his new defense even roughed up the usually stonewalled Manning this past Sunday.
"Rex will be Rex," said a smiling Lewis, and when asked to explain he said, "Big. They're going to come big. That's Rex's motto. Go big or go home, so he'll come big. I expect my man Rex to be Rex. I would expect nothing less. He's done a great job. He's fun to watch. He's fun to listen to. Every time I see him he makes me chuckle because I remember all of our time together. He's a man. We're going to compete against him."
Up in New York, Ryan had some fun, too, at his news conference when asked if the reputation of his defense would cause Lewis to sit people.
"I'm not sure. I do know Marvin well," Ryan said. "One year, I thought Cincinnati might have had the best team in the NFL, but, unfortunately, Carson got hurt I think the first play of a game against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Will that factor into it? I have no idea. Obviously, you'd have to ask Marvin."
"Again, if it's me, I don't play him or any other starter," Ryan said with a smile. "That's just me. I'm throwing it out there."
The last time Lewis was in this spot, he benched Palmer and most of the other starters in the first half of the '05 finale in Kansas City. The Chiefs won, 37-3, and current Bengals running back Larry Johnson logged at the time the fourth-most yards rushing ever against Cincinnati with 201.
"If we go out on the field, we're trying to win," said defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who has been hampered for much of the season by plantar fasciitis. "That's what we signed up for."
But Lewis has already been forced to try and win a playoff game with a backup quarterback and he's 0-1.
"We've got to do a good job protecting the quarterback, no matter what," said Lewis when asked if protecting Palmer figures into how much he'll play. "We play Pittsburgh, Baltimore twice a year. We've played some groups like this, and it's important. That's always a concern, and it's part of defending against some of the things. It's kind of feast or famine. You know, sometimes when they zig and we zag, we've got a big play coming. That's the other side of it."
For the players, there is also the allure of national TV exposure with the game now moved to NBC. It is a chance for Bengals cornerback Leon Hall, the second cornerback taken in the 2007 draft, to show his wares against the Jets' Darrelle Revis, the first cornerback taken. Revis made the Pro Bowl last year and there is some sentiment that Hall will make it this year when the teams are announced Tuesday night.
"Any time you're on the national stage, if you're any kind of competitor you want to go out there and play," Hall said. "He's having a great year. He's shut down some of the top receivers in the league this year."
You could say the same thing about Hall and he agrees with the caveat that "I've had a lot of help. (Johnathan Joseph) has been playing well all year and our safeties have played well all year."
Joseph has also been mentioned as a Pro Bowl candidate and both are tied with Revis for second in the AFC with six interceptions. Both are under the radar compared to the big-market Revis, but Hall doesn't get into that.
"He's had a great year no matter where he plays," said Hall, who admits he just hasn't been following things like Pro Bowls. "To be honest, I haven't paid it much attention."
And now it is really lost in the playoffs.
Hall figures this week "will be like any other week. We'll have a good week of practice and go up and play the game. It's not up to me (who plays). It's up to the guys upstairs to make that decision. There are positives and negatives both ways. Personally I'd like to play it through and ride the momentum."
Which is what players are supposed to say.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Crocker had an interesting take on his team MVP: Third-down back Brian Leonard: "For how many times he's saved our butt? ... His biggest plays have been when we were like, 'What do we do now?' "
"Hands down it's Brian Leonard. I've been saying that all year," Crocker said. "Everytime we really needed a play, he's always comes through. Always."
» NFL Films is shooting a piece on Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and his family that he says is going to air on ESPN in a few weeks. Steve Trout, the producer of Hard Knocks, was at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday and miked Zimmer during the game and one of his daughters in the stands. But Zimmer says he took the wire off in the tumultous fourth quarter.
The crew went to New Orleans a week or so ago to interview Adam Zimmer, Zimmer's son and Saints assistant linebackers coach, for a story that deals with the sudden death of Zimmer's wife Vikki back on Oct. 8.
It can be argued that Lewis' 2008 hiring of Zimmer is the biggest reason the Bengals celebrated winning the AFC North title Sunday, but Zimmer admitted his celebration was muted. He took his two daughters to dinner at Nada's in downtown Cincinnati so they could meet some of the players and then they went home and did the NFL Films interview as a family.