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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (2-3) at Atlanta (4-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Well-rested and ready to embark on a rough stretch of games, the Cincinnati Bengals will bring a two-game losing streak into the Georgia Dome on Sunday for a showdown with the host Atlanta Falcons.
The hype that consumed the Bengals prior to the season has turned into a smattering of doubt, criticism and disbelief following a 2-3 start. Star wide receiver Terrell Owens' arrival in training camp left the city abuzz, but that quickly faded following a season-opening loss at New England. The bandwagon then quickly filled up with back-to-back wins over Baltimore and Carolina, but has since emptied out in consecutive three-point losses to Cleveland and Tampa Bay.
Cincinnati won the AFC North with an unblemished record in the division a year ago, but sits behind Pittsburgh (4-1) and Baltimore (4-2) in the standings early on in 2010.
Many believed teaming Owens up with flamboyant wideout Chad Ochocinco would turn Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer into Johnny Unitas, but so far the two star receivers have combined for three touchdown catches. Owens is never short for words, and believes the way the Bengals can score in the red zone is by either finding himself or Ochocinco.
"I don't care how we score," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. The fallacy on what Terrell says is that defenses are making an effort to take those two guys away from us. So other guys have to make plays. We have to run the football effectively."
It's not as if Lewis has abandoned the run this season. Revived running back Cedric Benson wasn't as productive over the first four weeks until breaking out in the team's loss to the Buccaneers right before the bye. He had a season-high 144 yards on 23 touches that day, and may see more carries come his way in a balanced attack.
It's no secret Cincinnati entered the regular season ready to air it out, and Benson knew that. He stated that it's out of his hands and play-calling is not in his control. Benson also praised his offensive line after the Tampa Bay loss and is hoping better things will come during a tough stretch that begins Sunday.
After visiting Atlanta, the Bengals have to face Miami, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
The Bengals are 18th in rushing this season, averaging 103.4 yards per game, and seventh in passing (248.0 ypg). Benson has 10 games of over 100 rushing yards as a Bengal and averaged 6.3 yards per carry in his last game.
Atlanta entered last week's game in Philadelphia averaging nearly 150 rushing yards per game. However, the ground game was held to 65 yards in a 31-17 rout at the hands of the Eagles, in which top back Michael Turner compiled just 45 yards on 15 carries.
The Falcons were staring down a 21-0 hole early on and running the football wasn't going exactly as planned. Too many big plays given up by the defense forced head coach Mike Smith and his staff to alter their scheme, and it never panned out in Atlanta's first conference loss of the season (3-1). The defeat also halted the Falcons' four-game winning streak in the process.
"We were fine," Falcons end John Abraham said in reference to the defense's performance. "I think [the Eagles] just got some plays on us. What we prepared for was totally different from what they did. They did more tricks than we thought and they did plays to slow down our D-line. They did a great job."
Atlanta has had a full week to bounce back on both sides of the football, and is still tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South Division. The Falcons, who own the tiebreaker with the defending Super Bowl champs, would enjoy getting the ball rolling on the ground against a Bengals unit rated 18th in defending the run.
Following Sunday's home game, the Falcons will have time to rest with a bye.
Cincinnati holds a 7-4 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta, but has lost each of the last two head-to-head meetings with the Falcons. The Bengals were 29-27 home losers in the most recent meeting, in 2006, and dropped a 30-3 decision when they last visited the Georgia Dome, in 2002. Cincinnati's most recent win over the Falcons came at home in 1996, and the team is 0-2 in Atlanta since last winning there in 1987.
Lewis is 0-1 in his career against the Falcons, while Smith will be meeting both Lewis and the Bengals for the first time as a head coach. Lewis and Smith were both assistants on the Baltimore Ravens staff from 1999 through 2001.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer's (1,287 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) last game was a forgettable one, as he was intercepted a season-high three times to go with two touchdown passes against Tampa Bay. He had three picks over the first four games of the season, and his 58.7 passer rating for the day was the quarterback's second- lowest of 2010. Palmer was picked off by Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib with Cincinnati leading 21-14, with the turnover leading to the Bucs evening the score. The Bengals still had a chance at the end, but Owens was whistled for offensive pass interference and Palmer had another ball picked off by safety Sabby Piscitelli, whose takeaway helped set up Connor Barth's 31-yard field goal with one second left. It was Palmer's first three-interception game since the Arizona Cardinals picked off four of his passes in November of the 2007 campaign. Cincinnati is seventh in passing, averaging 248.0 yards per contest, and will try to crack Atlanta's 25th-rated secondary. Owens (31 receptions, 476 yards, 2 TD) needs one more touchdown catch for 150 in his career and has 11 all-time against the Falcons. He is aiming for his third straight game with at least 100 yards receiving as well and has posted 324 yards on 17 catches the past two weeks. Ochocinco (26 receptions, 316 yards, 1 TD) also needs one more touchdown reception to pass Carl Pickens (63) for the franchise lead in that category.
The Falcons have had trouble in pass defense this season, allowing 239.5 yards per contest. They're also near the bottom in yards allowed (337.3 ypg) and the Eagles racked up 474 yards on Sunday, including 320 through the air. Defensive back William Moore (21 tackles, 3 INT) posted his team-leading third interception in the loss for Atlanta, which has recorded at least one sack and interception in all six games this season. Moore's pick of Kevin Kolb led to the Falcons' first score of the day. Atlanta has scored 43 points off 11 takeaways this season. Speaking of having things taken away, cornerback Dunta Robinson (24 tackles) was fined $50,000 for his bone-jarring hit on Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson last week and is questionable for Sunday's game with head and leg injuries. Atlanta was victimized by the big play and allowed seven gains of 20 or more yards in Philadelphia. With Owens and Ochocinco headed south to the Georgia Dome, the Falcons can expect similar attempts from Cincinnati. Ochocinco has started trash-talking with the Falcons and reportedly sent the team T-shirts to make Sunday's game more interesting. Abraham (13 tackles, 4 sacks), Atlanta's best pass rusher, was shut out last week and is looking to rebound Sunday.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta was held to a season-low 293 yards last week and the offense seemed out of sync while playing mostly in catch-up mode. Perhaps the unit will perform a bit better in front of the home crowd as Atlanta begins a stretch of three straight games at the Georgia Dome. Quarterback Matt Ryan (1,415 passing yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) threw for 225 yards and two scores against Philadelphia and has a touchdown pass in five straight games. He has also thrown two or more scoring strikes in a game three times in 2010 and got wide receiver Michael Jenkins back in the fold Sunday. Jenkins, who missed most of training camp, all of the preseason and Atlanta's first five games of the regular season because of a shoulder injury, had a 42-yard catch for his first reception and finished with five grabs for 99 yards. While the Eagles contained fellow wideout Roddy White (43 receptions, 546 yards, 3 TD), Jenkins had a big day and gives Ryan another weapon to work with. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (27 receptions, 3 TD) came away with two touchdown catches on Sunday. It was his first two-score performance in a Falcons uniform and 13th of his career. The team's biggest concern was Turner (466 rushing yards, 1 TD) struggling to find daylight, as he compiled just 45 yards on 15 carries. He only has one rushing touchdown this season and will face Cincinnati's 18th- ranked run defense.
The big news coming out of the Bengals recently was the suspension of defensive end Antwan Odom for four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. The NFL turned down his appeal, though Odom's lawyer vehemently denied that his client took anything illegal. Odom hadn't been doing much this season anyway, as he's played in four games and has no sacks. He also suffered a knee injury in the loss to the Bucs. Michael Johnson (6 tackles, 1 sack) replaced Odom in the lineup and was just as ineffective. Defensive lineman Jon Fanene (1 tackle), out since Week 1 with a torn hamstring, returned to practice earlier this week, while the Bengals could activate rookie end Carlos Dunlap as well. The team is also scouring the wire for any free agents or practice players available. The defense better be prepared to see a lot of Turner after he was bottled up by the Eagles last week. Linebackers Dhani Jones (38 tackles), Keith Rivers (28 tackles, 1 sack) and Rey Maualuga (27 tackles, 1 sack) can take a piece out of Philly's playbook to see how Turner was stopped so easily. The Bengals are 18th in run defense, yielding 111.0 yards per game, and Sunday's loss was the first time in seven home games they allowed more than 13 points. Sacking the quarterback has been a problem since safety Chris Crocker (33 tackles, 2 sacks) leads the team in that category. Cincinnati has six sacks overall, tied for second- fewest in the league.
Expect to see the Falcons trying to get Turner and the ground game going again this weekend versus Cincinnati. Turner's arguably the best offensive weapon on the team, but on some occasions Ryan has to put the offense on his back. He had to do that last week in a losing cause, but at least found another reliable target for the season in Jenkins. White and Gonzalez will produce as well this week.
Cincinnati's defense should be benched for its lack of energy lately, leaving the usual suspects in Palmer, Owens, Ochocinco and Benson responsible for most of the fantasy points. Benson may have trouble finding holes, but that shouldn't stop owners from using him once again. Owens has taken over as the go-to receiver in the Queen City, so Ochocinco's trash talk must be backed up.
Ryan rarely loses at home and is 15-1 at the Georgia Dome in his brief tenure in the NFL. And with Cincinnati's inability to get to the quarterback this season, he should get more than enough time to make a connection with his receivers. Of course, the Falcons will be trying to re-establish the ground game after Turner was stumped a week ago. Atlanta is 4-0 when running for 98 or more yards and has recorded more than 200 yards rushing in two games. The Bengals need a solid performance from their defense, especially up front when trying to collapse the pocket and wedge both the running and passing lanes. Owens and Ochocinco may get their fill, but it will be the Falcons who feast on the win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 26, Bengals 18
10/21 15:57:02 ET