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Countdown: Bengals need to freeze Jets' running game
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N.Y. Jets at Cincinnati, 4:30 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Last Sunday night, the Bengals had problems dealing with the icy field conditions in the Meadowlands. That won't be a problem today, because Paul Brown Field has a heating system underneath, plus the field has been covered for the past three days. But it's going to be cold, with the wind chill expected to be below 10 degrees.
The Bengals receivers believe they will have better footing, thus allowing them to be able to get better separation from the New York defensive backs, who love to jam and play man-to-man on the outside. Of course, Bengals QB Carson Palmer must focus more on Laveranues Coles and Andre Caldwell, knowing full well Jets CB Darrelle Revis will latch onto Chad Ochocinco and probably take him out of the game. But look for Palmer to throw some comeback-route passes to Ochocinco to see how Revis reacts.
Even though the Bengals will have defensive linemen Robert Geathers and Domata Peko back — those two didn't play last Sunday — the Bengals have to be concerned with New York's No. 1 rushing offense. In the 37-0 win, the Jets rushed for 275 yards. They led the league with 172.3 per game. RB Thomas Jones ran for 1,402 yards this season with 14 rushing touchdowns. Rookie Shonn Greene, who hasn't fumbled in the past three games, has added 540 yards when Jones needs a break.
The Jets have four Pro Bowl-caliber blockers, and now the offense has added a wrinkle with Brad Smith lining up at shotgun in their form of the wildcat. On their first third-and-long situation Sunday, Smith ran 57 yards, setting up the Jets' first touchdown. The Jets used the wildcat on two other third downs in the first quarter, converting both, and Smith added a 32-yard scoring run in the second quarter, giving Cincinnati's defense plenty to think about for the rematch.
The beauty of this move is it has kept rookie QB Mark Sanchez out of tough situations. He hasn't thrown for a touchdown in the past two games, but he also hasn't thrown an interception or lost a fumble.
CZAR'S SCOOP: Sanchez, who has 20 interceptions on the season, has accepted his role. "I think things are going to get a lot easier eventually," Sanchez said. "But at this point in time, I kind of found that with the way we are running the ball, with being accurate, being smart, (that) has been our ticket these last couple of games. I just want to play the same way and get a little bit better, just build on each week."
Sanchez now wears a wristband with all the plays on it. When Palmer was a high school star at Santa Margarita in California, Sanchez, who is seven years younger, was one of the team's ball boys. His older brother, Brandon, was a teammate of Palmer's.
The Jets are the first team since 1970 to lead the NFL in rushing and also in total defense, allowing 252.3 yards a game. Just imagine how good they'd be if they hadn't lost NT Kris Jenkins. Also, the running game lost Leon Washington, a versatile change-up runner to Thomas Jones.
There is no question Bengals coach Marvin Lewis lost some Coach of the Year votes because of how his team struggled after being 7-2 by completing a sweep of the Steelers.
Jets MLB David Harris is still complaining about what he perceived as an illegal chop block by Bengals RB Brian Leonard last Sunday. The block injured Harris, causing his right ankle to swell. But he says he's ready to play.
The Bengals have allowed an average of 173 yards rushing over the final four weeks of the season.
The Jets are 8-0 when they have a positive turnover margin this season.
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is expected to get some interviews for head-coaching vacancies, possibly in Buffalo. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose contract is up after the season, will listen to any offer to join Mike Shanahan in Washington. The Bengals haven't discussed a contract extension with Zimmer since the bye weekend in early November.
Philadelphia at Dallas, 8 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996, but they are favored to beat the Eagles a third straight time this season.
It makes total sense, too, that Tony Romo won't vary much from last Sunday's excellent offensive game plan. The Cowboys used a spread offense with Romo in the shotgun much of the day, allowing the Dallas quarterback to see the Eagles' blitz while also giving Marion Barber and Felix Jones excellent running opportunities. Those two averaged 6.3 yards a carry and were the big reason Dallas controlled the clock and the game's tempo. The Cowboys ran a lot of draws out of this look and pretty much dominated the game as their massive offensive line, which returns RT Marc Colombo, pushed the lighter Eagles around.
Look for Philadelphia to use LBs Jeremiah Trotter and Chris Gocong, who was benched the past three games, more on running downs this time around. It is much easier for Philadelphia to blitz a two-back set, where they can overload a side while effectively hiding their intentions. With a three-receiver look, the Eagles were forced to cover everyone and simply couldn't generate much pressure on Romo. If the Eagles are going to have any chance, pass rusher Trent Cole must play better against OT Flozell Adams, who shut him out last Sunday.
Romo likes to throw to TE Jason Witten in short-yardage situations and go to stop-and-go routes with Miles Austin and crossing patterns to Patrick Crayton. Roy Williams is now sharing his position with rookie WR Kevin Ogletree.
Eagles QB Donovan McNabb was off his game in both losses to the Cowboys while under considerable pressure from NT Jay Ratliff and OLB DeMarcus Ware. Dallas' pass rush is much improved with the rapid development of LB Anthony Spencer and the solid three-technique play of DT Stephen Bowen.
McNabb needs to get WR DeSean Jackson loose early in the game in order to mix in some Brian Westbrook runs. If the Eagles can't run, they are in for a long day. McNabb must isolate on nickel back Orlando Scandrick and find safety Ken Hamlin, who doesn't run well on deep posts. The key, though, is how Philadelphia's makeshift offensive line holds up and buys McNabb some time to throw deep.
CZAR'S SCOOP: Should the Cowboys lose, owner Jerry Jones may decide to re-up head coach Wade Phillips for one more season and then see where the collective bargaining agreement stands with the players before the 2011 season. Then, Jones could consider former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher, should the ex-Pittsburgh coach fail to take a job this year.
The major reason Jones would keep Phillips is he owes offensive coordinator Jason Garrett $7 million for the 2010-11 seasons. Basically, Garrett and Phillips earn about the same amount per season, with Phillips collecting a few dollars more. Jones has been praising Phillips' efforts with the Cowboys' defense, and he's comfortable with him right now. He's also pretty excited about Phillips giving him a Home playoff game that's probably worth about $15 million to the franchise.
Unlike in years past, Eagles GM Tom Heckert is actually looking to leave the organization if he can get the right offer. Heckert needs a change of scenery. Eagles boss Joe Banner is also comfortable in simply elevating Howie Roseman, the team's vice president of personnel, into Heckert's role. Don't forget coach Andy Reid has all the personnel power anyway.
The Cowboys are in good shape long-term with Romo's contract. He earns $8.5 million next season and $9 million each in 2011-12. Romo is 0-2 in playoff games, but he sounds like a completely different player. He has passed for 909 yards and four touchdowns in the Cowboys' three-game winning streak at the end of the season. No longer a Hollywood junkie, Romo is dating a local sports reporter, Candice Crawford, who is a former Miss Missouri.
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