Bengals can take control of AFC North with win
John Clayton previews Week 7, with a huge AFC North matchup between the Bengals and Steelers leading the way.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 7 of the 2005 season.
The Bengals are for real this season. Their five wins have come against teams with a combined 5-17 record, but face it, that's the schedule. The Bengals don't need to apologize for taking advantage of an easy schedule. The Chiefs didn't have to apologize for going 13-3 a couple of years ago on a schedule that had 10 teams with losing records.
The Bengals have that kind of schedule. If there isn't a winning team in the NFC North, the Bengals could end up facing 10 or 11 teams with losing records. With the improvements on their offense with Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson and on the defense with the additions of rookies Odell Thurman and David Pollack, the Bengals should reach double-digit wins.
Sunday's game against the Steelers, though, should give us an indication of how good this team really is. They played well but lost on the road in Jacksonville in Week 5. This game is different. It's a home game. It's a division game. It's a defining game. Remember, the Bengals haven't had a winning season since 1990. Just winning six games by Halloween would be amazing for Bengals fans, putting them within three games of that cherished winning season.
The Steelers are still the rulers of the division, but a slightly tougher opening schedule -- losses to New England and Jacksonville at home -- put the Steelers at 3-2. A loss would give the Bengals a three-game lead and make them the legitimate favorites in the AFC North. Considering the Bengals' schedule, it might be hard for the Steelers to catch them if they get that three-game lead.
But can the Bengals win?
The Steelers have won five of the past six games against the Bengals and lead the all-time series, 41-28. Bill Cowher is 19-7 against the Bengals. The last time they met in Cincinnati, the Steelers overpowered the Bengals on the ground in a somewhat sloppy game, winning 19-14. Jerome Bettis rushed for 129 yards, and the defense held the Bengals to 42 yards in the second half.
Since then, though, Palmer has put together nine straight games with a QB rating of 100 or better. He hasn't thrown an interception in his last 148 passes spread over 18 quarters. On the Steelers front, Ben Roethlisberger returns after missing a game with a knee injury. Though he doesn't throw as many passes as Palmer, he doesn't throw interceptions and he comes up with big plays. Last week's loss to the Jaguars was a great example of how much Roethlisberger means to the Steelers.
This is the game that will define the validity of what should be a playoff season for the Bengals. But to be a division winner, they have to beat the Steelers.
And 10. Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks | Scouting report
Even though both teams should be on emotional highs, they aren't. They are 4-2 teams with problems. The Seahawks lost an emotional leader Monday morning when safety Ken Hamlin suffered a fractured skill and damaged brain tissue after being assaulted outside a Seattle nightclub. Special teams player Marquand Manuel will take over the safety position, but no one knows how he will do. Still, it's the emotional toll of losing one of the team's most popular leaders that will affect the Seahawks. The Cowboys have problems, too. They lost their left tackle, Flozell Adams, for the season and wide receiver Patrick Crayton for more than a month. It doesn't look as though halfback Julius Jones will be able to play. The Cowboys won a big Monday night game in Seattle last year, with Jones rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys' offense will struggle without their best running back, and protection problems for Drew Bledsoe could mount with Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti protecting him from the tackle positions. Despite great starts, the loser of this game could end up in a serious depression.
San Diego Chargers
The bye week came at a great time for the Eagles. Things weren't going well for them. The usually consistent defense had given up 64 points in two games. Teams were having unusual success passing against the Eagles. The pass rush had been inconsistent. Donovan McNabb fought through the pain of his sports hernia and needed a break. The Chargers, meanwhile, come in with confidence. The challenge for the Eagles and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will be finding a way to stop LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson has 652 yards, 10 touchdowns and no fumbles in six games. It will also be interesting to see what kind of coverages Johnson will come up with to try to stop Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. The Eagles are getting dangerously thin along the defensive line. They've lost Jerome McDougle and Paul Grasmanis and cut Corey Simon before the season. Defensive tackle Darwin Walker should return and that will be huge for the defensive line. The Chargers are banged up from the game against the Raiders. The offensive line is thin. The defensive line is carrying over some injuries. Plus, it's tough to go cross-country and win on the road. Still, these are two playoff-caliber teams meeting and should make for good football.
8. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings | Scouting report
You might not want to hang around the loser of this game. What was supposed to be a battle between the two favorites in the NFC North is instead a must-win game for two 1-4 teams going south. The Packers should be fresher coming off their bye week. They rested a bunch of injured players on offense and should have running back Ahman Green, tight end Bubba Franks and a few battered members of their offensive line back in the lineup. Unlike the Vikings, the Packers have one thing working well. Brett Favre has played solid football the past couple of games. He's completing 64.5 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdown passes. The biggest disappointment has been the lack of run production. The Packers are averaging 240 yards a game passing but only 77.8 yards a game rushing. Although the Packers have struggled, nothing is going right for the Vikings. The offense is making too many mistakes. Daunte Culpepper has 12 interceptions and is one of the lowest ranked starters in football with a 62.8 quarterback rating. Culpepper has to play better. Mike Tice was encouraged that the Vikings decreased their mental mistakes in last week's loss to the Bears, but the offense still scored only three points. The interesting change for the Vikings is moving to the 3-4 defense. They switched to a 3-4 during the bye week and it had its debut in the Bears game. They will probably stick with it against the Packers. Favre noticed the Vikings went to more man-to-man coverages from the 3-4 and doubled the number of pressure packages. Favre usually struggles in games played in domed stadiums, but he's cut down the turnovers in domed games of late. The Vikings will have to create turnovers to beat Favre.
Tom Coughlin is furious that the Giants converted only one of 11 third downs last week. Coughlin complained that losing on third downs limited the offense to 53 plays and killed any chance of getting continuity on offense. Eli Manning completed only 14 passes and Tiki Barber got only 14 runs. Figure that Coughlin worked overtime on trying to improve the team's third-down efficiency. This is an interesting game for the Broncos. They are 5-1 and on a five-game winning streak. Sure, four of their wins have come at home, but all of the wins were against teams that are .500 or better. That's impressive. The big-play ability of Tatum Bell is sparking the offense. Mike Shanahan is doing a nice job of mixing Mike Anderson for inside runs and Bell for big plays. Jake Plummer is managing the game without turnovers and occasionally mixing in a few long passes. This could be a game of big plays. The Giants are having trouble with their pass defense. Curtis DeLoatch and Will Allen are two of the most picked-on targets in football. Shanahan might be tempted to try more passes. The Giants are giving up 316.2 yards a game through the air. The Broncos are giving up 245 yards a game passing because they've had to use mostly rookies because of the hamstring injury to Champ Bailey, who should be able to play Sunday.
LaMont Jordan finally spoke out this week. He wants the ball more. Even though he never had a 20-carry game in his years with the Jets, he wants the ball more to get into the flow of the game. Jordan is averaging less than 18 carries a game and 3.6 yards a carry. Of course, the Bills will try to gang up against Jordan because the Raiders won't have Randy Moss, who isn't expected to play because of rib and groin problems, and Ronald Curry is out of the season with a torn Achilles. The Raiders went into the season with three big-play receivers and Jordan and averaged only 18 points a game. Now, the Raiders have only Porter and Jordan to feature. The Bills pulled out two home victories against AFC East teams with Kelly Holcomb at quarterback. This could be a volatile game. Willis McGahee came out this week and said he's the best running back in football. The Raiders are frustrated and can't afford to drop to 1-5. The Raiders enter the game like they did against the Cowboys, thinking they can win.
4. Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns | Scouting report
This is clearly the biggest decision in Steve Mariucci's reign as head coach of the Lions. If he goes with Jeff Garcia at quarterback and Garcia isn't ready to improve the offense, it could set back the team -- if that's possible. Garcia is coming off a broken leg, and his strength is his mobility. The wiser thing is probably to wait a week, but Mariucci and Lions fans are completely frustrated with Joey Harrington. Once Mariucci benches Harrington, it will be hard for him to win back the team. It's not like Garcia would be stepping into a great situation. The offensive line has been horrible. Wide receiver Roy Williams probably won't play and fellow receiver Charles Rogers is suspended. Running back Kevin Jones is banged up and hasn't been able to find any room to run. It's a mess. It would be ironic, though, if Garcia starts against the Browns. His one-year stay there was horrible. The Browns cut him and traded for Trent Dilfer and feel much better about their quarterback situation.
3. Baltimore Ravens at Chicago Bears | Scouting report
Don't expect a lot of offense in this game. This was supposed to be the week Kyle Boller came back from his foot injury. But putting Boller back in the lineup on the road against the Bears this week and the Steelers next week wouldn't be fair. And say what you want, but Anthony Wright has kept the season alive with two wins in three weeks. But who is going to be excited about an Anthony Wright-Kyle Orton matchup? Although the quarterbacks might not be exciting, these defenses are good. The Ravens rank second in the league in fewest yards allowed (246.8). While they will miss the big-play ability of free safety Ed Reed, who is out with an ankle sprain, how many times do you think Orton is going to throw one in Reed's free safety area anyway? Not many. This will be one of those old-fashion games. Jamal Lewis wants to get more carries, so Brian Billick will probably get him 20 to 25 attempts. Lewis has 98 carries and a 3.0 yard average. It's time for him to step up. Meanwhile, the Bears will counter with a hard running game from Thomas Jones, who remains the team's feature back even though he has a knee injury.
2. Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans | Scouting report
The fear for the Colts in this game is whether Dom Capers gets more involved in the defense. Capers is a great defensive coordinator and a superior motivator. He's usually tough in home games. But the Texans have been horrible. Their offense is the worst in football and the defense is giving up 28.2 points a game. One week, he benched three defensive starters. The next week, he benched three offensive linemen. Nothing has worked, so the next step is changing some of the strategy. If Capers takes more control of the defense and simplifies things, it might be a tougher game than the Colts expect. These teams meet two times over the next four weeks and most people figure these games will be blowouts. But the Colts know they can't underestimate the Texans. Of concern to the Colts is that their main pass rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, are banged up.
1. New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams | Scouting report
No matter what you hear, figure Marc Bulger to be out at least two games with a slight right shoulder separation. The Rams list him as questionable, but Jamie Martin will play Sunday and that was a formula that didn't work well against the Colts. Figure the Rams to run the ball more. Steven Jackson has been one of the Rams' most efficient offensive players. Jackson has 383 yards on 93 carries and four touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild has no choice but to run him more. The Saints are giving up 129 yards a game on the ground and Jackson runs quicker on the turf. Plus, Isaac Bruce probably won't play because of the toe injury, and Torry Holt is playing on a sore knee. The Rams' season comes down to these next two games. They have home games against the Saints and the Jaguars before the bye week. If the Rams get back to 4-4, they should get Mike Martz back during the bye week, and they can make a run at the playoffs.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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