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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (5-2) at Tennessee (4-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Raise your hand.
Anyone who looked at the four-win Cincinnati Bengals of last season, imagined them without former All-Pros Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and assumed what remained would match the team's 2010 win total in October alone -- go ahead and revel.
You've earned it.
Infused with the rookie pairing of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to replace the since-departed quarterback/wide receiver combination, the new-look Bengals have led when able, rallied when needed and otherwise held the line in workmanlike fashion while winning five of seven games in the opening two months of this 2011 season.
The surprising run has head coach Marvin Lewis' team right in the thick of things in the well-stocked AFC North, where the Bengals stand dead even with Baltimore and a half-game behind first-place Pittsburgh on the eve of their season's midpoint.
Cincinnati gets to game No. 8 this week in Nashville, where it faces the Tennessee Titans Sunday at LP Field.
The Bengals seek a fifth consecutive win, which would be their longest streak since a six-game run in 1998. The last three times Cincinnati started 5-2, in 1990, 2005 and 2009, it made the playoffs on each occasion.
"I think we set out not to do anything less," Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said after last week's 34-12 victory at Seattle. "That's what we're shooting for. We're going for team wins any way we can get them."
Unlike recent squads dominated by headline-makers Palmer and Ochocinco, the 2011 version has remained under the radar and won with defense, as Cincinnati ranks fourth in the league in both points and total yards allowed per game.
Only one foe (Denver back in Week 2) has exceeded 20 points on the Bengals, while two others (San Francisco and Seattle) have been held to 13 or less.
"We did good things I think in all three phases [against Seattle] and things that we have to do better," Lewis said. "It's where we are. I hope I just keep standing here and telling you the same things for the rest of the season, the next nine weeks after this, because that is the way it is.
On offense, burly running back Cedric Benson returns this week from a one-game suspension and is averaging a respectable 76.3 rushing yards per game this season.
For the Titans, a shred of what Benson's produced so far would be welcome.
Tennessee has ground to a 32nd-place halt in rushing offense, averaging a league-worst 68.9 yards per game, since the offseason conflict and ultimate payday for All-Pro back Chris Johnson, who managed just 34 yards on 14 attempts last week in a 27-10 win over Indianapolis.
Johnson has 302 yards in seven games, an average of just more than 43 per week. The Bengals are second in the league against the run, allowing 85.4 yards per game on the ground.
Third-year man Javon Ringer has pushed Johnson recently, going for career-highs in both rushing yards (60) and receiving yards (42) against the Colts.
"There's no rhyme or reason to [make a change] right now," said Titans first- year head coach Mike Munchak when asked about a potential backfield controversy. "If there was, I'd let you know. We're just trying to get something fixed that hasn't been as productive as we'd like, and we're not doing anything different."
The Bengals are 3-1 on road this season, while Tennessee has won four of its past five games at LP Field dating back to December of last year.
The Titans hold a 39-31-1 lead in the all-time series between these franchises, who faced one another twice a year as members of the AFC Central from 1970-2001, and snapped a two-game losing streak in the set with a 24-7 win in Cincinnati during the 2008 season. The Bengals took the most recent meeting held in Nashville, a 31-23 verdict in 2005, and also routed Tennessee by a 35-6 score at Paul Brown Stadium in 2007, but are just 2-5 on the road in this series since the Titans relocated from Houston. Cincinnati's only other victory at LP Field took place in 2001.
The onetime divisional foes have also faced one another once in the postseason, with Cincinnati claiming a 41-14 home decision over the then-Houston Oilers in a 1990 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Lewis has gone 2-2 against the Titans during his time as the Bengals' head coach, while Munchak will be taking on both Cincinnati and Lewis for the first time in his present capacity.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Dalton, a second-round pick in April's draft, has completed 76-of-118 passes (64.4 percent) for 760 yards with seven touchdowns, three interceptions and a 91.8 passer rating on the road, and is the first Bengals rookie quarterback to win four straight starts. The Bengals are 11-1 when Benson has 25 or more carries in a game, but Bernard Scott filled in for the suspended back last week had a season-best 76 yards against Seattle. Green, the fourth overall choice in this past draft, aims for a fifth consecutive game with a touchdown catch on the road. He has two touchdowns of 40-plus yards this season and leads NFL rookies in receptions (33), receiving yards (516) and touchdown grabs (5). Tight end Jermaine Gresham has a touchdown reception in two of his past three games, but could miss a second straight week due to a hamstring injury. On special teams, reserve wideout Brandon Tate had a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown last week.
Defensively for Tennessee, cornerback Jason McCourty recorded a touchdown on a blocked punt last week and leads the team with 59 tackles. Safety Michael Griffin had an interception in the Titans' 2008 meeting with the Bengals, while linebacker Barrett Ruud registered his first interception of the season last week and rookie tackle Karl Klug -- a fifth-round pick -- is tied for third among AFC first-year players with three sacks.
Statistically, Cincinnati is 12th in scoring (24.4 ppg), 22nd in total yards (315.9 ypg), 21st in passing yards (212.4 ypg) and 21st in rushing yards (103.4 ypg). The Titans are 11th in scoring defense (20.7 ppg), 18th in total yards allowed (363.9 ypg), 17th in pass defense (234.6 ypg) and 27th against the run (129.3 ypg).
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Titans are 4-1 when quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has a 90-plus passer rating, and the veteran needs three touchdown passes to reach 190 for his career. Hasselbeck has six touchdown passes in his past two games against the Bengals as well. Johnson rushed for 109 yards in his only career game against the Bengals back in 2008 and needs 100 rushing yards to reach 5,000 for his career. Ringer totaled 102 yards from scrimmage (60 rush, 42 receiving) last week, while wide receiver Nate Washington had both a rushing and receiving touchdown against the Colts and kicker Rob Bironas added field goals from 50 and 51 yards out. Tight end Jared Cook is averaging 18 yards per catch in 2011 (15 receptions, 270 yards).
Cincinnati's defense is allowing 85.4 rushing yards per game in 2011, second- best in the NFL behind San Francisco's 73.4. The unit has also recorded eight fumble recoveries this season, second-most in the NFL behind Baltimore�s nine. End Frostee Rucker has two sacks in his past three games, while safety Reggie Nelson had a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Seahawks. Linebacker Thomas Howard, who is questionable for Sunday's tilt with a hamstring problem, has 37 tackles.
By the numbers, Tennessee is 19th in scoring offense (19.9 ppg), 25th in total yards (307.7 ypg), 14th in passing yards (238.9 ypg) but dead last in rushing yards (68.9). Defensively, the Bengals are fourth in points allowed (17.6 ppg) and total yards surrendered (297.4 ypg), ninth in pass defense (212.0 ypg) and the aforementioned second overall against the run.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Without a consistent running game, the Titans must turn to veteran quarterback Hasselbeck, who threw for 224 yards against Indianapolis in spite of the offense having four three-and-outs.
Tennessee is 3-1 in four home games, while the Bengals are a matching 3-1 on the road. The Titans' home dominance is a revelation after they were just 3-5 in Nashville last season, while need to use that edge to their advantage on Sunday.
With Benson back, the Bengals have a decided statistical edge in the running game, as they'll be facing a Tennessee unit that's just 27th in the league in allowing 129.3 yards per week.
The Bengals have a few advantages on paper, not the least of which is a four- game win streak and a strong road record. But truth be told, neither team has done much against a big-time opponent. In that case, Tennessee's win over Baltimore in Week 2 and its home-field standing this week could break the tie.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 20, Bengals 17
11/03 13:44:37 ET