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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (10-5) at N.Y. Jets (8-7)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New York Jets have been down this road before.
Just last week, coach Rex Ryan and Co. entered a game with fleeting playoff hopes against an opponent - in this case, the Indianapolis Colts - whose trip to the postseason was signed, sealed and delivered.
One controversial 29-15 win and lots of AFC help later, and the Jets are in control of their mid-January fate heading into the season's last weekend - again against a foe whose ticket is punched.
They'll host the Cincinnati Bengals, who've already clinched the AFC North Division and will either have a chance at a No. 3 seed or be locked into the No. 4 slot based on early Sunday results.
The Jets-Bengals contest was shifted from 1 p.m. to 8:20 p.m. for broadcast on NBC's marquee "Sunday Night Football" telecast.
It's also the final regular-season game at Giants Stadium, which will be replaced by a new facility to house both the Jets and New York Giants next season.
"We have a great opportunity in front of us," said Jets running back Thomas Jones, whose 1,324 yards this season are best on the NFL's top rushing team (166.6 yards per game). "It's so funny how things can change in a week in this league."
New York's hopes appeared dead and buried after falling to 7-7 with a 10-7 home defeat against Atlanta on Dec. 20, before the win over the previously unbeaten Colts - coupled with losses by Denver, Jacksonville and Miami - provided the inside track at the first of the conference's two wild card berths.
In fact, a Jets win would likely trigger a rematch between the two teams in the opening week of the AFC tournament - a 4 vs. 5 game that would be hosted by the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
A Bengals win Sunday would give them the No. 3 seed, should Houston defeat New England in a 1 p.m. game. New York, meanwhile, cannot reach the playoffs without a victory.
The Jets were in a similar situation in 2001, when they defeated the Oakland Raiders, 24-22, in the final game of the season to earn a playoff berth and another date with the Raiders a week later.
New York lost the rematch that year, 38-24.
"I think we're built to be a team that can win in December and January," Ryan said. "I think we would be a very dangerous team if we make the playoffs."
Cincinnati heads toward the postseason for the first time since 2005, when it captured the AFC North with an 11-5 mark and was beaten in the playoffs by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Prior to 2005, the team hadn't reached the playoffs since 1990.
The Bengals stumbled to 8-8, 7-9 and 4-11-1 records in the last three seasons, but rebounded to 10-5 so far in 2009 in spite of a flurry of tragedy that recently included the death of wide receiver Chris Henry in a domestic dispute in North Carolina.
Also, as the Jets saw against the Colts last week, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis admitted he may rest many of his players in Sunday's game, pending the New England result and other factors.
"They've got more on their shoulders than we do," Lewis said. "I think they have the pressure of having to win the football game to get into the playoffs, and so forth. I think our guys will be fine with it, I told them since the time we went to Minnesota it's like it's going to be the rest of the season and it's played out like that."
The Jets lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 13-7, including a 26-14 win when they hosted Cincinnati in Week 6 of last season. The Bengals won the previous meeting, a 38-31 home triumph in Week 7 of the 2007 season.
The Bengals have never won at Giants Stadium, combining for an 0-10 record against the Giants and Jets in the facility. Cincinnati lost at the Meadowlands to both New York-area teams last season.
New York won the only postseason contest between the two, a 44-17 road victory in a 1982 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Lewis is 1-2 in his career against the Jets, while New York's Ryan will be meeting both Lewis and Cincinnati for the first time as a head man. Lewis and Ryan were both members of the Baltimore Ravens staff from 1999 through 2001, winning a Super Bowl together during the 2000 season.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Once a more air-centric team, the Bengals have gone to the ground game more in 2009, courtesy of the resurgence of Cedric Benson. The former first-round pick and subsequent washout with the Chicago Bears was signed last year and played well late, before bursting this season for a career-high 1,251 yards. He's gone for 100 or more six times this season - a Bengals record - and is 49 yards from becoming just the third Cincinnati runner to reach 1,300 in a season. Recent pick-up Larry Johnson hasn't played much since his arrival, but he did go for 110 yards on nine carries in his only meeting with the Jets, in 2005 with Kansas City. On the passer-receiver side, QB Carson Palmer has a 102.3 passer rating in two career starts against the Jets. Wideout Chad Ochocinco is aiming for a fifth straight game with a TD. And Laveranues Coles meets his old team for the first time after seven seasons as a Jet.
Though only cornerback Darrelle Revis was recognized with Pro Bowl status among the defensive players, the Jets nonetheless enter the season's final week carrying a trio of gaudy numbers. New York is first in the league in yards per game allowed (264.3), passing yards per game allowed (163.9) and points per game allowed (15.7). Situationally, however, the team has given up decisive scores in late-stage losses to the Falcons, Dolphins, Bills and Jaguars. In fact, only two of the team's seven losses have come by more than five points. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Revis and his six INTs in 2009 are tied for second in the conference. Linebacker Calvin Pace ranks first with seven of the team's 29 sacks, a half-sack ahead of veteran end Shaun Ellis. Meanwhile, linebacker David Harris is No. 1 with 126 tackles, including 80 solos.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Though widely panned because of pulled starters, the Jets' stat line against the Colts was a model of what they hope to expect in January - including 202 rushing yards and zero turnovers. Incidentally, over the past six seasons, teams reaching 200 yards on the ground with no turnovers are 66-2. New York is 148 rush yards away from eclipsing a franchise mark of 2,646 that's stood since 1979. Individually, Jones is two ground TDs away from snapping a career-high of 13 last year, and is 12 yards shy of passing his personal-best of 1,335 from 2005. He registered three TDs - one receiving, two rushing - in his last game against the Bengals. Elsewhere, quarterback Mark Sanchez has cut down on the mistakes and leads NFL rookies with 2,381 passing yards. Among his targets, former Cleveland Brown Braylon Edwards has five TDs in his last five games against Cincinnati.
While they don't come in with the top-end statistics the Jets can boast, the Bengals have been effectively stingy toward opponents for the bulk of 2009 as well. Their 300.1 yards allowed per game is third-best in the AFC, while the ball-hawking of cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph has resulted in 12 interceptions between them - six apiece - making them the only AFC teammates with at least six. The totals account for the team lead and place the duo in a tie for second, with Revis, in the conference. As a unit, the defense has picked off 19 passes, which makes them a difficult challenge for Sanchez, who has thrown 20. Elsewhere, end Antwan Odom maintains the team lead with eight sacks even after he was lost for the season with an Achilles injury during the season's first half. Promising rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga will also miss the remainder of the season after fracturing an ankle last week against Kansas City.
In a matchup of ground-pounding teams, the starting runners - Jones and Benson - are high-end properties. Outside of that, it gets dicey. Ochocinco will be limited by Revis, while Sanchez's habit for error is dangerous against a play- making secondary. If any other play must be made, make it the Bengals or Jets defense.
After a year of bombastic extremes from Ryan and performance extremes from his players, the Jets are in the same old position of having to win to get in. And though history has frowned overall, their success rate in the decade - berths in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006 - isn't all that bad. Mix in a resting foe and the emotion of the final game in the swamp-side Valhalla called "The Meadowlands" and it seems an ideal scenario for the Jerseyites to reach the promised land. At least until next week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 20, Bengals 14
12/30 15:18:40 ET