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Bengals march on without Henry; 10 things to watch this weekend

It seems cold to write about football and the Cincinnati Bengals, what with just one day passing since the death of wide receiver Chris Henry. Three children will grow up without a father. A life on the way to being better-lived was ended.

I talked with T.J. Houshmandzadeh on Thursday night at some length about Henry. They'd actually gotten closer since Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for Seattle, with Henry viewing him as a mentor and frequently calling for advice -- and I'll write some of that in Monday Morning Quarterback, as well as what sort of football potential was snuffed out when Henry died in a Charlotte hospital Thursday.

On Sunday, the Bengals will play with heavy hearts in San Diego. After a moment of silence at Qualcomm Stadium, 9-4 Cincinnati will take on the 10-3 Chargers in a last-gasp try for the second seed in the AFC playoffs.

"It's been somber, obviously,'' offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the team learned of Henry's death. "We kind of went through this with the death of [defensive coordinator] Mike Zimmer's wife a couple of months ago, but you never get used to something like this. With this one, there's so much shock. I don't know how it'll affect us Sunday.''

Bratkowski's message was much the same as head coach Marvin Lewis': "I told the guys, 'There but for the grace of God go us.' Embrace what we have. Live our lives. That's what we have to do.''

Sometimes teams get inspired with events like this. Sometimes they get deflated. "You can go either way,'' Houshmandzadeh said. "But they have a perfect guy to lead them in a situation like this. Marvin's great. He's a good person to have in a position of power because the guys respect him and he'll always do the right thing.''

The odds are against Cincinnati; the Chargers are simply a better team, on an eight-game winning streak with surprising defensive depth surfacing to supplement a scary-good, nearly Foutsian passing game.

The Bengals have changed, in two ways. They're a running team now, not a team that relies on Carson Palmer's right arm. In Palmer's last full season as quarterback in 2007 (2008 was marred by an aching elbow for much of the year) , Cincinnati ran on 41 percent of the offensive snaps. In 2009, it's a 51-percent running team. And it relies on a stout defense.

It's easy to understand why the Bengals have changed. They couldn't beat 'em, so they joined 'em. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore both strong on defense with solid run games, Lewis decided to do a U-turn away from an over-reliance on Palmer. They've won four games this year when Palmer was held under 190 yards passing; last week, at Minnesota, Palmer threw for an alarmingly low 94 yards.

That prompted me to call Palmer this week and ask: "Is there anything wrong with your arm?''

"Not at all,'' Palmer said from the Bengals' locker room Wednesday. "My elbow's great. It's 100 percent. Especially for this being Week 15, I'm fine.''

Palmer said he's onboard with what the Bengals are doing. "Our mindset since OTAs was to be a different team,'' he said. "We knew our defense would be good, and if we could control field position and control the clock, we'd have a really good chance to be a good team. We used to drop back 35, 40 times a game and lose. I'm fine with throwing 25 times a game, because we're winning.''

Bratkowski told me the only time Palmer's support wavers is when the Bengals take the pedal off the metal early in the second half and allow foes to creep back in games -- or when they're losing. "This was the model we thought gave us the best chance to win,'' said Bratkowski. "What's won our division in recent years? A great defense and a ball-control offense. We made the commitment that we'd be a physical running team, and that became a great friend of the defense.''

The Bengals, even if they succumb to reality and their emotions and lose Sunday, are still on course for the AFC North title and either the third or fourth seed in the AFC playoffs. That could bring the Broncos or Ravens -- or Jets or Dolphins -- to Cincinnati for a wild-card game in January. In a season of tragedy off the field, beating back the two best teams in the AFC in 2008 in their own division is a major triumph in itself.

I had Peyton Manning as the 25th-best player in history in my "Monday Morning Quarterback'' book prior to this season. I think he's got to be in the teens by now, and he'll keep rising. (Thirteen through 19 in the book: Ronnie Lott, Bob Lilly, Joe Greene, Brett Favre, Jack Lambert, Bronko Nagurski, Anthony Munoz.)

Manning is 33. He was magnificent in the 35-31 win at Jacksonville, going 13 of 13 in the first half, and perfect until a catchable ball bounced off Dallas Clark for an interception. Four more touchdown passes, including the finale that won the game, a high-arcing in-stride 65-yard bomb to Reggie Wayne. He's on pace for his most accurate season, and his best yardage season. "The most consistent QB -- week in and week out -- that I've ever seen,'' tweeted Hall of Famer Troy Aikman last night in the middle of the third quarter.

Marion Barber and Felix Jones, RBs, Dallas.

It's a cliché to say every week that Tony Romo's got to come up huge to win these big games in December. At some point, Barber and Jones have to do what Jerry Jones is paying them to do -- play big and dominate a game or two with the playoffs on the line. In the past two games, both losses, Mr. Inside (Barber) and Mr. Outside (Jones) have combined to rush 21 times for 42 yards in the loss to the Giants and 24 times for 98 yards in the loss to San Diego. Unacceptable. It's time for two very good backs to have a very good December game Saturday night in the Superdome.

1. The white smoke coming out of the chimney at Redskins Park. You saw Bruce Allen get the GM job there Thursday. You know Bruce Allen and a certain former coach with a haircut like Dwight Schrute's were joined at the hip in Tampa and produced the Bucs' only Super Bowl victory over. Guess who's coming to the Park today to prep for ESPN's Monday-nighter against the Giants? That's right. Jon Gruden.

2. The climb to 2,000 for Chris Johnson. The Tennessee back faces run defenses ranked 13th (Miami), 21st (San Diego) and 11th (Seattle) over the final three weeks, needing 374 yards to hit 2,000. I think we'd all be surprised if he didn't make it.

3. Let Chad wear Henry's number, Commissioner. I'd love to see Roger Goodell make an exception to the NFL's steel-trap rules about uniforms. Let Chad Ochocinco wear Chris Henry's number 15, and after the game, let it be auctioned off on NFL.com with the proceeds going to college funds for the three surviving children of Henry.

4. DeMarcus Ware's neck. Five nights ago, Ware was in a Texas hospital, undergoing a battery of tests to determine if there was any damage to his neck or brain after a violent collision in the game against San Diego. There wasn't, but now comes the issue of whether he should play (on a the road, in a short week) at New Orleans Saturday night. "He's close,'' Wade Phillips said of Ware. Sounds like he'll go, even with all the league-prompted attention to head injuries in recent weeks.

5. Percy Harvin's head. Thursday was the fifth straight practice Harvin, the rookie Minnesota wideout and return man, missed with the migraines that have occasionally plagued him in his life -- but never this seriously. The Vikings are prepping to play Carolina without him Sunday, which would be his second straight missed game. But it's not Sunday against Carolina that Brad Childress is worried about. It's the middle of January, when the Vikings play their next vital game. Will Harvin be there?

6. Randy Moss's productivity. Whatever you make of his effort in recent weeks, Moss simply hasn't been getting open. Over the past three weeks, Tom Brady's targeted Wes Welker 36 times and Moss 15. Welker has caught 26 balls, Moss an alarmingly low six. Forget all the rah-rah stuff everyone from Bob Kraft to the Gillette groundskeeper has been spouting about Moss this week. They're all worried, and they should be. You can't win in January with one receiver who gets open.

7. Jim Mora's attitude. "If you're going to be a good offensive lineman, you've got to be a little bit of a dirtbag,'' Mora said this week. Because he thinks his line is too soft, Mora made a couple of changes there for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, including putting practice-squadder Mike Gibson at right guard. Seattle's 5-8. Drastic measures are welcome. And I don't just mean Ken Griffey Jr. raising the 12th Man Flag Sunday before the game.

8. Orlando Pace's Chicago career. It will end on the bench. Sad, really. But Pace's feet just aren't quick enough to play left tackle anymore, and the Bears seem prepared to sideline the 34-year-old Pace, the first overall pick in the 1997 draft, and go with Chris Williams (left) and Kevin Shaffer (right) at tackle for the rest of the season.

9. Ron Turner's Chicago career. It will end unceremoniously unless the Bears' offense does something explosive against Baltimore, Minnesota and Detroit in the final three weeks. The most logical scenario with the Bears seems (and I emphasize "seems'') this: Keep Lovie Smith, jettison Ron Turner. A new offensive coordinator to replace Turner is paramount to the rebuilding of the offense's psyche. Seems justified to me. I don't care who's receiving the ball. The Bears have to get more out of Jay Cutler than a league-high 22 picks and more out of the offense than scoring 21 points of fewer in 10 of 13 games.

10. The Rumor Mill. Getting hot. I can feel the pregame-show vibe Sunday already: Cowher to Carolina. Shanahan to Washington. Somebody to Buffalo. (Personally, I'd like John Fox or Mike Zimmer there, with Fox bringing Charlie Weis to run the offense if it's him.) Dallas? Let's let that one percolate for a while.

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