Top five

One person's five biggest questions heading into the last week of the season: **

  1. HOW DO YOU WIN IN THE AFC NORTH?**

You have to do what Baltimore did against Dallas Saturday night. Yeah, the Ravens came into the game averaging 3.8 yards per rush before they did in the fourth quarter what had never been done before in NFL history. They ripped off runs of at least 77 yards on two consecutive snaps with their season on the line against a defense that had allowed just 93 rushing yards per GAME.

That doesn't mean they're a great running team. It just means they have the will to run the ball when they need it most.

2. WHAT HAPPENS 48 HOURS AFTER THE SEASON?

With the Marvin Lewis era at the crossroads, Bengals president Mike Brown sits down with his head coach to plot the most important offseason since Lewis became the first hire outside the organization in January 2003.

With the economy in the dumper, the NFL's collective bargaining agreement in serious jeopardy, and a 29-year-old franchise quarterback with more major injuries (two) than playoff appearances (1), it is arguably a more important offseason than Lewis' first one.

The conventional wisdom is that Lewis is back. Of course, that could all change in a 30-minute discussion, which is why the wait is on.

But they have to be talking already, right? About scheme, personnel, staffing, operations, everything, right?

And where is Carson Palmer's patience in all of this? **

  1. WHICH FREE AGENTS WILL THE BENGALS RE-SIGN?** Forget the T.J. Houshmandzadeh-Stacy Andrews-Shayne Graham soap operas for a minute. The Bengals need to get in the fold two guys they picked up off the street this year in safety Chris Crocker and running back Cedric Benson.

Who are they going to have at running back in '09 besides a high draft pick? Kenny Watson is going to be 31 and coming off an injury-plagued season. They gave Chris Perry a handful of games and then buried him. DeDe Dorsey can't get off IR. James Johnson is a rookie free agent. Benson's experience is going to be a must. The club has feared playing rookies early largely because of what they have to do in blitz pickup, which is why Watson not being available in several games has hurt.

And the answer there is Chris Johnson, Steve Slaton, Matt Forte. Run the ball and the rookies don't have to worry about blitz pickup.

As for Crocker, he has been that rarest of veteran DBs under Lewis. Lewis has clashed with some edgy, mercurial personalities at that spot, but Crocker has come in as an aggressive-captain-John Thornton type that is Lewis' kind of leader and worth his weight in the salary cap.

4. WILL THEY DRAFT OFFENSE OR DEFENSE WITH THEIR FIRST PICK? The Bengals first have to make some major decisions along the offensive line. But if they don't re-sign Andrews, they still don't have to draft a left tackle if they think Andrew Whitworth or Anthony Collins can play there and the other one can replace Andrews at right tackle.

They've picked defense No. 1 the last four drafts and two guys that would make sense are the linebacker or safety from USC's historically great defense. They play with a passion and recklessness that are the kind of traits that can put Mike Zimmer's aggressive, competent scheme over the top and give them a Steelers/Ravens defender that leads with fire as well as talent. **

  1. WHAT TO DO AT BACKUP QB?** Ryan Fitzpatrick is a free agent and has accumulated a bunch of critics. But he hadn't taken a snap in a game since 2005, barely got any snaps in practice in 2007, and walked into an offense that was bleeding before it was bequeathed to him.

The Fitzy bashers point to first-time starters Matt Cassel and Joe Flacco, all the throws that haven't been made downfield or been poorly thrown, and that some of the sacks are his fault because he was getting used to meshing his drops with the line.

The Fitzy supporters look at 3.4 yards per carry, 37 sacks, the two interceptions in Indy that were the receivers' fault as much as his, and his brainy play against a numbing stretch of top defenses that kept some games close.

Whatever the Bengals decides, they have to do it quickly. They've got to make a determination on what Palmer's status is going to be with his injured elbow and if there's any shot he won't be ready for the beginning of training camp. Whether that puts them in the market for another backup is really the question. And is it going to be the same scheme?

OK. Fitzpatrick may be 2-7-1 as a starter. But, remember, Palmer was 0-4 with the same crew. Fitzpatrick can run around, make plays, is tough, and smart. That stuff isn't always waiting on demand.

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