Breaking down Sunday's Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens game (1 p.m., CBS)...
1. Mental toughness: One of these teams has it. And it ain't the one from the Queen City. It's been pretty hard to get a grip on these Bengals from Sunday to Sunday. The Week 1 collapse against Denver gave us a pretty good picture of the '09 squad, or so we thought. They bounced back to a certain degree with a mediocre performance in a win at Lambeau, which should have earned them respect. Not with this writer. That win -- despite 13 penalties for 100 yards -- spoke more to the Packers' weaknesses along their offensive line. Without Antwan Odom's five-sack day, a Packers win was just as likely.
That game could have been a huge pick-me-up for this mentally fragile team, but it opened Week 3 by spotting the Steelers a 13-point lead in that game's first 18 minutes. That the Bengals came back to win should surprise no one -- especially Steelers fans. Pittsburgh hasn't been able to put away any opponent all year long. I gave that one a lame golf clap and wasn't a bit surprised when Cincy struggled well into overtime before edging out Cleveland -- Cleveland! -- a week later. Kudos, Marvin Lewis, for the comeback win. But a comeback against Cleveland means one thing: you were losing to Cleveland at some point. The late rally was only necessary because of mental lapses on special teams.
In case you missed it, Lewis, who knows this bunch all too well, had the names and numbers removed from his team's practice jerseys before that Cleveland game. I guess that was supposed to get their heads straight. But how many times can he go to that well? And how much do we really believe in a team that can barely be cajoled into beating the Browns?
On the opposite side, is there any doubt whatsoever that Baltimore's defense will get up for this game? Can you remember the last time the Ravens lost without getting royally pissed off about something afterward? Anger is like youth juice for Ray Lewis, and this defense should be plenty fired up.
2. Key matchup: Ravens receivers vs. anyone-but-Leon Hall. The Bengals' lockdown corner, Leon Hall, has helped neutralize his opponent's top receiver in every game thus far. In games against Denver, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the foursome of Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards combined to catch five balls for 45 yards and zero touchdowns. Both Jennings and Edwards were held catchless.
If only the story ended there. Cincinnati's opposite corner, Johnathan Joseph, and a pair of retread safeties, Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, are having a harder go of it. The Bengals rank 26th in the league against the pass (242.2 ypg), which means that teams are finding other ways to move through the air. For every strong performance by Hall there's been a Mohamed Massaquoi (8 catches, 148 yards, Week 4), Mike Wallace (7, 102, Week 3) or a Donald Driver (6, 99, Week 2).
Scanning the Ravens' roster, that means you should be looking for Kelley Washington or Mark Clayton to bail out Joe Flacco if Mason gets blanketed. Question is: how often will Flacco have the conviction to go to Clayton, the more explosive of the pair, given his two key drops late week against New England?
3. Representation by running backs. Bengals fans are going to hate this, but how about the idea that the two feature backs in this game, Cincinnati's Cedric Benson and Baltimore's Ray Rice, represent everything their team is about. Let's try it out.
Benson: Loads of potential but never really flashes it when you most expect him to. (For example: 74 yards against Cleveland.) Probably going to break down soon. (Yeah, he's on this week's injury report -- again.) And mentally, well... He leaves something to be desired. That's pretty much your 2009 Bengals right there, no?
They could go 10-6 with this offense, but we'd probably all bet on 8-8 instead. The Bengals struggled in their one gimme game. Carson Palmer's arm -- and his leg, for that matter -- are maybe, kinda, sorta fixed. But we can't tell. And just try to tell me that you think Chad Ochocinco will make it through the year without one game-costing meltdown.
Rice: This one's tougher, but the guy's damn versatile, and that's about all you need to say about the Baltimore offense. Pick your poison with Rice. Would you rather die by Rice on the ground, where he has two 100-yard games in a three-man-rotation? Or through the air, where he's the Ravens' third-leading receiver? He'll kill you with both. And that's the Ravens for you.
Now that we've settled that, who would you rather have on your team, given the matchup? Rice against a Bengals' rush defense that, while improved over 2008 (especially with young blood like Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers trolling the middle) is still far inferior to Baltimore's stout run-stoppers?
Or do you go with Benson against a truly, madly, deeply pissed off Ray Lewis and company? Remember Rashard Mendenhall last year? Remember Benson in Super Bowl XLI, crippled by safety Bob Sanders? This should be an easy one.
Every week, I'll lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 5 matchup:
Ray Rice -- He's winning over coaches week after week with his efficient work (11 carries, 103 yards against New England) and he's a big part of the passing picture. Meanwhile, Le'Ron McClain is slowly fading from the picture.
Baltimore defense -- Does your league award points for broken shoulders? Players left crying in the defense's wake? It could be that type of week for a Ravens defense angered by its loss to New England last week.
Cedric Benson -- He could make this decision a lot easier for you if he sits out with a hip injury. In the meantime, it's time to consider shopping what could still be called a hot commodity. Check out the defenses Benson faces later this season: Chicago, Baltimore again, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and the Jets.
Derrick Mason -- Considering Hall's aforementioned résumé, this one should be an easy call.
Do I question the Bengals? Sure I do. More importantly, I fear for anyone traveling to Baltimore this week. Defensively, the Ravens will be on a tear. Poor Carson Palmer will pay for all of Tom Brady's Week 4 sins. Offensively, they'll continue to grow against a Bengals defense that's not going to get in the way of Cam Cameron's game plan much.
Angry team at home versus somewhat lackadaisical rival on the road. Reminds me too much of Pittsburgh-San Diego last week, and that game was a blowout at the half. If Cincinnati musters a late comeback, per usual, Baltimore has the clock-churning runners to finish it off. Ravens in a smackdown, 38-20.
Overall record: 3-1 (Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15).(Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).(Week 3 prediction: Vikings 23, Niners 20. Result: Vikings 27, Niners 24).(Week 4 prediction: Saints 31, Jets 24. Result: Saints 24, Jets 10).