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Too close to call

In the end, it wasn't the running games that did in the Bengals defense when it got swept by the Steelers and Ravens by an average of 21 points this season.

It was the big play by offenses whose close-to-the-vest reps belie their gun-slinging effectiveness and Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer advises his counterparts in Baltimore and Pittsburgh to be wary of a long ball that could break open Sunday's in-the-box AFC title game between the NFL's top two defenses.

"When both teams get past the 50, they take their shots downfield," Zimmer says. "Both offensive lines are playing better than they did any point in the season and both quarterbacks are big strong-armed guys."

Even though Pittsburgh's guy, Ben Roethlisberger, already has a Super Bowl ring and Baltimore's guy, Joe Flacco, was still at Delaware when they played the last one, Zimmer gives the edge to the visiting Ravens.

"Everybody thinks Pittsburgh is the team to beat but I think it's tough to beat a team three times in a season," Zimmer says. "Baltimore's got a lot of momentum. I like what they're doing and how they take care of the quarterback, and those two games were close; OT and in the last minute."

Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, a veteran of the defunct AFC Central who has played the Steelers and Ravens 35 times, politely disagrees with his boss. He saw the last moments of the Ravens victory over Tennessee on Saturday and saw a beat-up team.

"Big Willie (Anderson) left with a stinger a few times and I had one of those a few years ago. It's going to happen again if you just get touched there," Thornton says of the Ravens right tackle. "The fullback (Le'Ron McClain) could barely walk. And on defense Terrell Suggs was all banged up. But they're a tough-minded team. There are times you can will yourself to win, but looking at them, they just look like a tired team."

Thornton, who also played the Ravens in the playoffs in 2000 when he was with Tennessee, insists the Bengals are close enough with both to compete in the division next season.

"It changes almost every year," Thornton says. "Up until last year, we had a pretty good handle on both of them. I don't think the gap is that big with Baltimore. I've said it before: I think this team can be good. They made a few right decisions in the offseason on some of the things that just need to get settled on offense and they're right there again."

Although the Bengals allowed an average of 156 yards rushing per the four games against the Ravens and Steelers, they didn't get dominated in giving up 4.1 yards per rush. They got nicked by their own offense's inconsistencies as much as anything else. They suffered 17 three-and-outs against Baltimore alone and the defense held up decently at 4.2 yards per rush despite getting hammered on 89 times in the two games.

"We wore out," Thornton says.

The touchdowns the Bengals allowed in the 17-10 loss to the Ravens in the opener came on two long runs off a reverse and broken reverse. Then, in the 34-3 loss at Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 30, Flacco burned cornerback Leon Hall on a 70-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mark Clayton. Clayton, who beat the Bengals on a 42-yard run off a reverse in the opener, then beat Hall on a 32-yard option touchdown pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason after Clayton caught a 40-yarder that set up another touchdown.

"One thing that Baltimore does better than Pittsburgh," Zimmer says, "is get their wide receivers lined up one-on-one on the outside and get open. And their whole offense is playing better than it did earlier in the season."

The Steelers punctuated their 38-10 victory at PBS on Oct. 19 with Roethlisberger's 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Nate Washington. There weren't many fireworks a month later on the Heinz Field slop in the 27-10 Thursday night game, but Roethlisberger hit four different receivers on throws ranging from 19 to 37 yards.

The opener was a rude awakening for No. 1 pick Keith Rivers getting burned on the reverses while making his first NFL start at WILL linebacker. A huge irony. Flacco was supposed to be the rookie that struggled that day, but he turned disaster into a game ball with his 38-yard scramble off a blown handoff.

"Baltimore has far more gimmicky stuff," Zimmer says. "Mason is tough. I hate that guy. He's good. He's tough. He's got great hands, and he's a horse. Both teams have receivers that really help them in the running game. Mason and Hines Ward. (Pittsburgh's Santonio) Holmes is the wild card. He's the most explosive receiver on the field."

After years of trying to haul down Roethlisberger in the pocket only to see him find someone downfield at the last instant, Thornton really likes Roethlisberger in the matchup against Flacco.

"If both running games stall," he says, "the advantage goes to Pittsburgh because Ben can move out of the pocket so well and make plays when things break down."

Zimmer, who came to Cincinnati on a strong recommendation from Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, saluted his former Falcons colleague on how he's handled Flacco.

"They've managed to keep him on a short leash and he's not made a lot of mistakes," Zimmer says. "I think they'll have to take more chances against Pittsburgh than they did last week. They won't be able to be as careful. But he checks the ball down well, he's got a tremendous arm and he gets the ball out quickly for the most part. We had a bad quarter against them (in the second game). We played badly covering the long pass."

Thornton also thinks the long ball haunts both defenses. Particularly the Steelers, who he says still have Chris Henry nightmares.

"When we had them figured out," he says, "they couldn't stop Chris down the field."

But the key for both pass games is play-action and throwing out of run formations. That's how the Steelers hit the 50-yarder to Washington.

"They have a lot of condensed formations. Putting three players in close proximity, in a bunch. And they have a lot of different throws out of it," Zimmer says of the Steelers. "You've got to watch the deep crossing routes. If you're not exactly precise, they'll find a deep one or a curl."

Thornton says when the Steelers get a lead, they love to come with a big pass off a run look. On the Washington play, he remembers the left guard pulling. Then he saw the exact same play last week against the Titans late and it drew a big pass interference penalty.

Of course, it didn't help on that play in Cincinnati that Hall came out the previous snap because he had a problem with his contact lens. Backup cornerback Geoff Pope ended up having to deal with the run fake.

"Really no secret," Zimmer says. "You've got to get the run stopped."

Pass protection could be a problem for both clubs.

The Bengals couldn't pressure either passer. They never sacked Roethlisberger even though he was the fourth most sacked quarterback in the league per pass. And they didn't get to Flacco until the second game, when they got him twice. But Baltimore finished only 22nd in allowing sacks per pass.

Yet now they're each facing the league's upper crust and the suspect protection should get even more tested, although it doesn't seem to bother Roethlisberger. If Suggs plays, three of the AFC's top sackers are going to be in the game with linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley lining up for Pittsburgh.

"You've got to make Ben a pocket passer," Zimmer says. "Baltimore keeps guys in to block protect the young guy. (Tight end Todd) Heap doesn't go out on routes as much as he used to. Again, you've got to be careful of play-action so you really have to stop the run."

Which is another reason Thornton gives the edge to Pittsburgh. He compares Steelers running back Willie Parker's style to that of Chris Johnson, the Titans rookie that went off in the first half last week against Baltimore but couldn't play in the second half.

"We did a good job on Willie; we took him out," Thornton said of Parker's 37-yard effort on 14 carries in the one game he played against Cincinnati.

"He's rested. He's got the fresh legs. He's got the ability to bounce it and the Ravens had a tough time stopping Johnson doing the same thing."

Both Zimmer and Thornton are intrigued by this one and are interested to see what goes down, even though this was Zimmer's first year in the division and Thornton's 10th dating back to the '99 six-team Central Division.

"Both teams are built for the playoffs in cold weather," Zimmer says, and Thornton knows that the more things change the more they stay the same.

"The wild card is Ben," he says, "and how he gets out of the pocket to make things happen."

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