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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (2-1) at Cincinnati (2-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If the setting were a few blocks down the Ohio riverfront, the discussion would change.
There, within a few long TD passes of Paul Brown Stadium at Great American Ball Park, any pre-weekend chatter likely centers around the dubious fan bases of Tampa Bay and Cincinnati - and why neither city has been able to yield consistent capacity crowds for playoff-caliber baseball teams.
Of course, if that were the topic, the fact that the Rays and Reds combined for precisely six hits, one run and zero wins in Wednesday's American and National league division series openers wouldn't help.
Good thing it's a football dialogue instead.
On the gridiron, gathering enough passers-by to watch the Buccaneers and Bengals hasn't been as big a concern as the teams have combined for four wins in seven games and 172,318 attendees in three home dates through four NFL weeks.
And what's actually occurred on the field has been entertaining enough to warrant a return.
The Bengals, a surprise playoff entrant last season, have gone two-up, two-down in their initial four games of 2010 and look forward now to a stretch of three home dates and a bye in the next five weeks.
A sign of possible good fortune is the sudden arrival of wide receiver/cartoon character Terrell Owens, who had his best game with his new team last week - catching 10 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 road loss at Cleveland.
Signed as a free agent in the offseason, Owens had accounted for just 152 yards on 14 catches through three weeks as he struggled to find productivity alongside established No. 1 aerial threat - and legitimate contender for most comical personality - Chad Ochocinco.
The dual targets allowed quarterback Carson Palmer to rack up 371 yards in Week 4, his highest total since eclipsing the 400 mark (401) against Cleveland in 2007.
That said, two Palmer fumbles resulted in two Browns field goals in a three- point game.
"Too many mistakes at timely times," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We had the fumble early that killed us on a drive. We were moving the football. And to have the other fumble, both of them are tough. But there at the end we had a chance to win it, we just didn't come up with enough plays."
Playing the visitor role this weekend are the Bucs, who were off last Sunday after taking a 38-13 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 3 that ended a two-game win streak.
Tampa Bay was unable to continue the same grind-it-out, opportunistic mojo against the Steelers that had translated into schedule-opening 17-14 and 20-7 wins against Cleveland and Carolina, which may prompt a slight change in personnel.
Cadillac Williams started in Weeks 1 and 2, but a 2.5-yard per carry average and the team's failure to generate 100 yards in either of the last two games could prompt more work for youngsters LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins.
Blount, the notorious former Oregon star claimed from the Tennessee Titans prior to the season, carried six times for 27 yards and a late touchdown against the Steelers. And Huggins, a second-year-pro from Hofstra, had been nagged by injuries but looks ready to return.
Bucs coach Raheem Morris played and was later an assistant at Hofstra.
"Hopefully we get Kareem back this week off the injury bug and LeGarrette has earned the right to have a helmet on, at least," Morris said. "So that will definitely be part of the talks this week. Cadillac has been out there and running. He's our guy that gets us going in the right direction. We'll be fired up to go see these guys play. We'll be fired up to get them their touches and get them their runs."
Tampa Bay owns a 6-3 advantage in its all-time series with Cincinnati, and has won five in a row in the series since the Bengals' last win 1989. The Buccaneers were 14-13 home winners when the clubs last met, in 2006, and also won their most trip to Cincinnati, a 35-7 triumph in 2002. The Bucs have won three straight games in the Queen City since their 56-23 loss there in '89.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 0-1 in his career against the Buccaneers, while Tampa Bay's Morris will be meeting both Lewis and the Bengals for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
The Bucs will be aiming to prolong a streak that's yielded five consecutive wins in the intermittent matchup with the Bengals. Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman has also developed a surge of momentum with four wins in his last six starts and three straight victories on the road. In his last three road outings, he's completed 60.5 percent of his passes and has an 87.2 passer rating. Though ground to a halt recently, the aforementioned Cadillac rushed for 94 yards in his lone meeting with Cincinnati. In his career, the Bucs are 13-0 - and 2-0 in 2010 - when he carries the ball at least 22 times. Among the other options, Blount netted his first career TD in his first career game last week and dual threat Earnest Graham has nine catches and one TD reception in his last two outings. He has four catches for 57 yards in the loss to Pittsburgh. Among the wide targets, rookie Mike Williams has caught a TD in two of his first three games and veteran Kellen Winslow aims for a fifth straight outing against Cincinnati with five catches.
The Bengals have been respectable - if not remarkable - on the defensive side through four games. They rank in the middle of the pack, 16th of 32, in points allowed after surrendering 38, 10, 7 and 23 thus far. They're higher on the list in yards allowed, where a weekly clip of 299.3 is sixth in the league. Among the individuals, cornerback Leon Hall aims for a fourth straight game with an interception. His total of three through four games is tied for best in the NFL. In the middle, linebacker Keith Rivers notched his first sack of the season against the Browns and holds the team lead through four games with 24 tackles. Eight other players - including veterans Dhani Jones and Robert Geathers and youngster Ray Maualuga - have recorded double-digit stops thus far. Rivers and end Frostee Rucker have managed one sack apiece for a so-far anemic pass rush that's gotten only four in four games. Hall has been the standout, deflecting five passes in addition to his three INTs.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The Bengals are looking for the continuation of home cooking, as Cincinnati has won six straight at Paul Brown Stadium and five of its last six against NFC foes. Palmer was a hit in one career matchup with the Buccaneers, completing 24-of-37 passes for 261 yards, a touchdown and a 94.5 passer rating. He's 7-2 lifetime in home games with the NFC while recording 17 touchdowns and a 95.0 rating. The former USC star is 198 yards short of joining Ken Anderson (32,838) and Boomer Esiason (27,149) as the lone Bengals QBs to reach 20,000 for a career. On the ground, big man Cedric Benson has rumbled for a 123.4-yard average in his last five against NFC foes - a 617-yard total. Through the air, Owens has had recent success against the Bucs in myriad stops, scoring three times in his last four games. His 222 yards last week was the fifth-highest total in league history. And running mate Ochocinco caught six balls for 99 yards in his last go-round with Tampa Bay.
Like the offense, the Buccaneers' defense doesn't inspire much reaction upon inspection of the roster or the statistics. Somehow, though, it's translated into success thus far in 2010. The Bucs allowed just 21 points in their opening two games before the average was skewed by the 38-point debacle against the Steelers before the bye week. Tampa Bay stands 17th in the league in points allowed and 20th in total yardage after that loss, in which Pittsburgh recorded 387 yards and 17 first downs - including 201 yards on the ground. Among the individual suspects, ageless cornerback Ronde Barber has an interception in two of three games this season and remains one of just two players in NFL annals to post at least 25 sacks (25) and at least 30 interceptions (39). Joining him in the backfield is Aqib Talib, who aims for a third straight game with an INT. He was out for the opener due to a one-game suspension for a violation of the NFL personal conduct policy.
Tampa Bay isn't exactly bursting with options for fantasy purposes, with tight end Winslow and wideout Williams perhaps the least reaching of their personnel. For the Bengals, Benson has evolved into a dependable weekly threat and kicker Mike Nugent has become a sturdy performer as well. And, considering the lack of big-time talent within the Bucs' offense, the Cincinnati defense isn't a bad stretch either.
After noshing on the league's have-nots in Weeks 1 and 2, the Buccaneers were rudely introduced to the haves against Pittsburgh and lost by 25. Though perhaps not as solid as Pittsburgh, the Bengals are closer to the latter status than the former. Expect Palmer to utilize his many run and pass options, while the defense makes just enough stops against a Tampa Bay offense bereft of proven weapons. It may not be as decisive as 25, but the better team won't be in question by the end.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 24, Buccaneers 14
10/07 14:54:25 ET