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NFL Preview - Chicago (3-2) at Cincinnati (4-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - And now, stay tuned for "Who Wants to be a Midwestern Playoff Team?"
On one side, ladies and gentlemen, we have the Chicago Bears - who dropped their opener, won three straight to refuel long dormant postseason chatter, then proceeded to lose a seven-point primetime decision in Atlanta after surrendering the decisive touchdown with three minutes to play.
And on the other, it's the Cincinnati Bengals, perennial doormats who woke up the echoes of Ickey Woods with a surprising 4-1 start, only to return to earth in southwest Ohio after an erratic 11-point loss to the visiting Houston Texans last weekend.
So, in Week 7...it's revealing question time.
Is Jay Cutler truly the championship-caliber quarterback the Bears thought they were getting when they dealt Kyle Orton - you know, the 6-0 Kyle Orton - to Denver in the offseason?
Are the Bengals really continuing the roll they started with three wins to close out 2008, or were the fortunate endings to wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore just that - fortunate?
On the latter, Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty opined, "This is the NFL, and the Bengals aren't the '72 Dolphins. After a tumultuous and emotional 10 days, plus five weeks of dancing on the ledge, the ledge was going to give way, sooner or later. The Texans had been losing the same close games the Bengals had been winning."
On the Bears front, coach Lovie Smith hasn't yet reached desperation stage, in spite of a running attack that saw Matt Forte' generate just 23 yards on 15 carries against the Falcons, while Cutler - who signed a two-year contract extension reportedly worth $30 million early this week - killed a drive with a red-zone interception.
"Coming off the loss, we're not pleased with anything we did (Sunday) night, starting with me," Smith said. "I'm not pleased with a lot of things I did. But we'll go from there. We look at changes after every game. We look at what gives us the best opportunity to win. But I don't foresee any major changes."
As a sidelight, the game provides the first reunion chance for re-emergent Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson against a Bears team that drafted him fourth overall in 2005, then cut him following a pair of alcohol-related arrests in 2008.
Benson, whose 531 yards through five games are third-best in the league, said this week that the Bears may have blackballed him as he attempted to find a new team after he was released.
"I heard all the rumors that were said coming out of Chicago," he said. "Even the Bengals told me all the things that they would call and inquire about me and get nothing but negative things.
"Just that I didn't work hard, that I was I guess a prima donna or I didn't work hard on the field, just wasn't focused, just anything negative that they could say, it was said. I'm sure that contributed largely to me not getting picked up right away."
Cincinnati holds a 5-3 edge in its all-time regular season series against Chicago, including a 24-7 road win when the teams last met, in 2005. Chicago won the previous meeting, 24-0, in 2001 at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals' last home win in the series occurred in 1995.
Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis is 1-0 against both the Bears and Lovie Smith, who has faced the Bengals just once as a head man.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
After years of game-managing with Orton and all-or-nothing trauma with Rex Grossman, the Bears have settled into a dynamic groove with Cutler, whose 300 yards last week were a season-high that marked the 11th time in his career at the threshold. In his lone career meeting with the Bengals, he threw two touchdown passes in a 2006 victory while with Denver. When he racks up a single-game passer rating of 100 or better, his teams are 13-0. Meanwhile, in spite of last week's struggles, Forte' is one of only two players in the league with 1,500 yards in the ground and 600 through the air since the outset of 2008. On the outside, big-play maven Johnny Knox is the first Chicago rookie since Walter Payton to score in four straight games. He leads all NFL rookies with three receiving TDs and one on a kickoff return. Lastly, tight end Greg Olsen can match Knox's output with his own fourth straight game with a touchdown.
In addition to the loss, the Bengals took a big hit personnel-wise last week when defensive end Antwan Odom was shelved for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Odom entered the game with the Texans having already equaled a career-high of eight sacks through just five games. Without him across the line of scrimmage, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub passed for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Defensive end Frostee Rucker (ankle) and tackle Tank Johnson (foot) are also battling injuries, which prompted the Bengals to add interior lineman Orien Harris Tuesday. Jon Fanene should replace Odom in the starting lineup, while rookie Michael Johnson should see his snaps increase. Elsewhere among the healthy, cornerback Johnathan Joseph has three interceptions in his last four games and is tied for the AFC lead in the category. In the middle, linebacker Dhani Jones leads the team with 39 tackles.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
As mentioned earlier, the Cincinnati offense will surely feature a steady dose of the revenge-minded Benson, whose 813 yards since last December are the league's best. He's averaged 97.7 yards per game when he's reached at least 20 carries, and, in those games, his teams are 9-1-1. In 25 games under Marvin Lewis where a back has carried 25 times, the Bengals are 24-1. Through the air, quarterback Carson Palmer is steadily scaling the franchise's ladder after becoming the third Cincinnati QB to pass for 17,000 yards in a career. He's seeking a sixth consecutive game with at least one TD pass and carries a 78.3 passer rating into Sunday's game. On the other end, outspoken wideout Chad Ochocinco's 9,031 receiving yards are second to only Torry Holt since 2002. He posted his first 100-yard game of the season against the Texans and is averaging 98.5 yards in his last two. In his lone career meeting with the Bears, he caught two TD passes.
Even without defensive lynchpin Brian Urlacher, the Bears have made things difficult on most opposing quarterbacks. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had a sack in his last matchup with Cincinnati and his 64� sacks since 2002 are tied for seventh in the league. He leads the team through five games with 4� sacks. Fellow end Alex Brown is second on the team with 2� sacks and the Bears have won 20 of their past 23 when he records at least a half-sack. The ledger is similarly successful on tackle Tommie Harris; Chicago has won 12 of the last 15 when he registers a sack, though he has yet to do so this season. Veteran linebacker Lance Briggs has 33 tackles to lead the team, while defensive back Danieal Manning is second with 32. Lastly, the team is 15-5 when cornerback Charles Tillman has an interception. He has one INT and three forced fumbles in his last three games with AFC foes. He has one pick this season, along with two deflections and 25 tackles.
For the Bears, Cutler may hand the ball off a little more against a balky Bengals run defense, but he'll probably still toss it enough to make a play worthwhile, though his go-to targets - Knox, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett - are varied enough to make none a legitimate No. 1 candidate, other than Olsen among the tight ends. Overall, Forte' might be the best option. For Cincinnati, Ochocinco's reemergence warrants full-time play, as does Benson's, though the Bears might be equally motivated to silence him after their inglorious parting.
If either team seems as legitimate as its early-season success so far, it's probably the Bears. Chicago has a quality quarterback, a workhorse runner and a high-end defense. The Bengals, while surely talented in spots, don't have the track record in recent years to suggest they're legitimate. Though, with a win this week, that would change.
The way it looks from here is that Cutler and Forte' and a receiver of choice, against a battered defense, will have an easier time proving their worth than Palmer and Friends will in the other direction.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 24, Bengals 17
10/22 12:50:17 ET