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Bus Stops: Talented Bengals need to regroup; lay off NFC West

Throughout the 2010 NFL season, SI.com's Nick Zaccardi will work with Jerome Bettis to get the six-time Pro Bowl running back's observations about the latest happenings in the league. Bettis retired from the NFL in 2006 after a 13-year career and is a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2011.

The Cincinnati Bungles are back. It shouldn't surprise anybody that Cincinnati lost another close game thanks to a mental lapse. Lineman Pat Sims jumping offside on a fourth-and-2 late against the Saints was the latest in a series of head-shaking moves from this lost franchise. The Bengals clearly have the talent to be a playoff-caliber team. They won the AFC North last year, and you know how much I like that division.

Yet they may be the worst team in the NFL. How does this happen? I can't put my finger on a specific moment or a specific problem that made the Bengals become the Bungles again. But pretty much everything is wrong, and they've lost their identity.

Management needs to evaluate both coaching and personnel, starting with Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer. In Lewis' case, 90 percent of NFL coaches would probably have been fired by now. But not in Cincinnati, where, internally, expectations are low and wallets are thin. He may actually be safe for another season.

I'm not as confident in the future of Palmer. Quarterback is one of several positions the Bengals need to take a long look at in the offseason to determine the direction of this football team. The addition of Terrell Owens hasn't worked. His production has been there, but by pairing T.O. with Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals put too much emphasis on their passing game. They were a playoff team powered by Cedric Benson and the running game in 2009, but they've gone away from that.

The offensive line and the defense have been very problematic, too, but I actually think this could be a quick fix. The perfect example to go by is the Steelers, who, like the Bengals, had plenty of talent but lacked leadership and enthusiasm last season and missed the playoffs. They recommitted to Steeler football in the offseason and have carried through on that commitment into this season.

We witnessed the best rivalry in the NFL on Sunday night. With apologies to the Colts-Patriots and Bears-Packers, the Steelers and Ravens have been the definition of a rivalry the past few seasons. Either team can win. Since Ben Roethlisberger's debut in 2004, the Steelers have won eight times and the Ravens seven. You know it's going to be a heavyweight fight each game. Look at the players KO'd Sunday night and others who played through pain and bloodshed. Fates can change in one play, proven again by Troy Polamalu's strip sack.

The consequences of winning and losing are pivotal. The Ravens could have taken control of the AFC North with a win and a tiebreaker edge over the Steelers, but with the loss fell to the No. 6 seed in the playoff picture. They can't afford to slip up in the final weeks or the Colts and Chargers could move ahead. I challenge you to find a more compelling NFL rivalry.

Ryan Clark brought up another great point last week when he told Peter King, "I don't particularly hate them. In fact, the ultimate respect I can give them is if I couldn't play for Pittsburgh, I'd want to play for Baltimore." I couldn't agree more. There's a mutual understanding between the teams. They're built the same way, based on hard-nosed defense and a commitment to run the football.

The NFC West champion is a deserving playoff team, regardless of record. Many are groaning that the Rams or Seahawks could make the playoffs at 7-9 or 8-8 over a potential 9-7 or 10-6 second-place team from another division. It's unfortunate that situations like this happen, but every team goes into the regular season with one goal: win the division. If you can't do that, you don't have any excuses when sitting at home in January.

Don't discount the Rams or Seahawks come January, either. Just look at recent history. The 9-7 Cardinals made the Super Bowl two years ago. My Steelers won it as a No. 6 seed in 2005, and the Giants as a No. 5 in 2007. My point is, once you get in the playoffs, records and regular-season accomplishments can be thrown out the window. The NFC West champion has a great chance to make the next surprise playoff run since it will open the postseason with a home game.

A few more quick thoughts ...

-- I'm starting to believe in the Jaguars, but I'm not quite buying into them yet. Beat a top-tier team (the Colts aren't one of them), and they can be called a contender. It looks like they won't get that opportunity until the playoffs.

-- The Packers' throwback uniforms were one of the ugliest looks I've seen in a long time. Certain retro outfits are admissible once or twice in a season -- like the Bucs -- but I never want to see those Green Bay unis again.

-- We may start seeing playoff elimination games in Week 14. I'm talking about Chiefs (8-4) at Chargers (6-6), a do-or-die game for San Diego's playoff chances. Kansas City, meanwhile, has the opportunity to lock up the division, capping a nice turnaround season. Prediction: The Chargers win and stay in the playoff hunt, but Philip Rivers won't win the game by himself. His defense will stop the Chiefs' running game in a conservative victory.

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