Breaking down the AFC wild-card matchup, Jets at Bengals, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC
1. How much stock should we put into Week 17? In the days leading up to the Bengals' regular season finale against the Jets, their players and coaches insisted they would try their best to win, even though they had already clinched the AFC North title and a first round game at home at Paul Brown Stadium.
"You think we're going to show up and just lay down?" defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. "No."
You know the rest: in the freezing cold of the Meadowlands, the Bengals played shorthanded, without a half-dozen regular starters, while the Jets, fighting for their playoff lives, pounced early. The Jets outgained them 250 total offense to seven in the first half, and 320 yards to 72 for the game, on their way to a 37-0 win.
The Bengals, by Saturday afternoon, will have had less than six days to watch tape and figure out how the Jets rushed for 257 yards against their formerly second-ranked run defense -- 92 yards of which came on four carries by Brad Smith, who took direct snaps out of the so-called "Tigercat" formation. They also have to determine how the Jets' top-ranked defense shut down their offense more or less completely. "Next week is going to be an even tougher battle, because they're going to see what we did and make adjustments," Jets linebacker Bart Scott noted. "We had to throw the kitchen sink at them. We're going to have to do what we did this week, but better."
It is then that we will see whether Week 17's outcome was a matter of simple motivation, or -- far worse for the Bengals -- one of talent.
2. Forget about Ochocinco. In the home locker room after last week's game, a reporter asked Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis if he thought he'd prevailed in his ballyhooed matchup against Chad Ochocinco.
"I don't know, what do you think?" Revis asked, with a laugh. "I guess I did."
Revis, in fact, had continued to bolster his reputation as the league's top cover man, holding Ochocinco, the five-time Pro Bowl selection, without a catch for the first time in 121 games, before Bengals coaches pulled him at the end of the first half. This is nothing new for the third-year corner: this season he has treated each of the top wideouts he's played -- Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Marques Colston and so on -- similarly.
Ochocinco had more than one-third of his club's receiving yards during the regular season -- 1,047 of 3,134 -- but if the Bengals are to mount any sort of aerial attack in their rematch against the Jets, they will have to plan to do it knowing that their main threat will be largely taken out of the game, by Revis. The return from injury of J.P. Foschi, their top pass-catching tight end, should help, but much of the load could be shouldered by Andre Caldwell (51 catches for 432 yards this year), who is probably the Bengals' fastest receiver. If Caldwell can't pick up the slack left by a neutralized Ochocinco, Cincinnati will be in trouble.
3. Cedric Benson will have to be the Bengals' offense's focal point. Benson, who revitalized his recently dead-in-the-water career with a 1,251 season in '09, was given Week 17 off, and watched his backups Larry Johnson and Bernard Scott combine to rush 15 times for 58 yards, the majority of which came after the game was well out of hand. He'll be back for Round 1, and he'll need to be on form, as the Bengals' lack of an effective running game last week rendered them unable to chew up either yards or the clock. By the end of the first half, the time of possession was a ridiculous 24:50 to 5:10 in the Jets' favor, and the score was 27-0. New York's defense ranked eighth against the rush in the regular season (98.6 yards allowed per game), but they remain without their best run-stuffer, nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who was lost for the season due to a torn left ACL he suffered in Week 6. If Jets head coach Rex Ryan's swarming 3-4 defense has any vulnerability, it should be against a powerful runner like Benson, and he will have to take advantage of that.
Can the Bengals bounce back from last Sunday's blow out? Maybe. NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, the former Bengals wide receiver who called last week's game (he'll be on Eagles/Cowboys on Saturday night), explains how they can do it:
"Defensively, the Bengals will get a lot of players back who didn't play last week. They'll get Chris Crocker, who has really been a difference-maker at safety for them this year. They get Robert Geathers back, hopefully, their starting [left defensive] end. And they get Domata Peko back, who [defensive coordinator] Mike Zimmer said was the best nose tackle he'd ever coached. It'll be a different team. They will still be without [injured strongside linebacker] Rey Maualuga, they still won't have [injured strong safety] Roy Williams. But I think they'll be more competitive.
"What we saw from Brad Smith was impressive, it really was. But it wasn't just this game. If you've watched the Jets the past two or three weeks, you saw on tape that especially with him under center, running some of those option plays -- the NFL in general is having a pretty tough time with that. The thing that I keep thinking is, when is he going to throw a pass? It's one thing to stop the option, bringing safeties down, but if all of a sudden he throws it -- and here's a guy who threw for more than 8,000 yards in college [as a quarterback at Missouri] -- I don't know what you do there. But I think a week of film study, plus the defensive starters the Bengals will have returning, will help them deal with him.
"I don't know if you go from that kind of physical whipping one week, flip a switch and turn it completely around the next week. But I do know that if the Bengals can't stop the run and put the ball in the hands of [Jets rookie quarterback] Mark Sanchez, on the road, in his first playoff game, then they're not going to win. If they do, and it comes down to a battle between Sanchez and Carson Palmer, now it gets a little more interesting. So, who am I going to pick? I'm still not sure. But I do know the Bengals are favored [by 2.5 points], which is a little bit counterintuitive no matter how you look at it, if you watched that game last week. But the Bengals were embarrassed. They'll come back and play a good game. Will it be good enough? I'm not sure."
A number of factors suggest the game won't be nearly as lopsided as last week's. The Bengals will be motivated; they will be at home; they will start nearly their full complement of regulars; they will use every trick in their playbook, which is something that they did not do last Sunday, Ochocinco insisted. If, as Collinsworth suggests, they are able to force Sanchez to attempt to make the big throws that he didn't have to make last week, then they might have a shot, as Sanchez has yet to demonstrate NFL-caliber accuracy and ranked second in the league in interceptions behind only Jay Cutler, the feckless Bear. It shouldn't, however, come to that, thanks to a powerful Jets running game led by Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene and (now) Smith, and to a Jets defense that is playing at its peak and should continue to match up awfully well against the Bengals' weapons. Jets 24, Bengals 14.