1. Despite that nightmare second half last week, should the Bengals feel good about their season?
PAT MCMANAMON: Of course. The Bengals found a talented quarterback and a receiver who already shows the highest level of athleticism and professionalism. They also locked up offensive coordinator Jay Gruden for three years, which is a very good thing (is he heir apparent to Marvin Lewis?). If the Bengals draft this year approaches the success of last year’s, they will be good for many years. In fact, barring an unexpected slide they could catch the Steelers next season.
ZAC JACKSON: Very much so. The Bengals still have flaws and holes to fill, but the two things that happened with their quarterbacks in 2011 — Andy Dalton proved he’s capable of the job and the Bengals robbed the Raiders for Carson Palmer — should position the organization for a nice run over the next few years. That guy who wears No. 18 is really, reallly good, and the Bengals’ defensive line is, too. It’s a quarterback’s league and the Bengals appear to have one, so we’ll see what happens from here.
2. The Steelers — just temporarily disappointed or ready to press the panic button?
PM: In between. It’s time for Pittsburgh to ask some serious questions, especially on defense where the over-30s might be on the downward slide. The entire defensive line might need to be replaced, along with linebacker James Farrior. Pittsburgh also has to ask hard questions about whether it wants to put up with James Harrison anymore. Had the Steelers stayed healthy, this discussion might not be taking place. The Steelers were the league’s top-ranked defense. But Pittsburgh has to ask whether age contributed to the injuries and first-round playoff loss.
ZJ: My lean is toward the panic button, but the Steelers never do that. Still, they have some glaring issues that need to be fixed in order to maintain their expected level, and fixing those will include some tough decisions on players. They’ve always gotten away, to an extent, with shaky offensive linemen and corners, and now the defensive front needs fixed, too. They’ll draft well and be efficient in free agency, but unless Ben can be upright and the younger linebackers are ready to dominate, this Steelers team could face some trouble — by its standards — in 2012.
3. Tebow in New England. There’s no chance the Broncos win, right? Right?
PM: Not right. Tim Tebow has proven two things: He is probably the most unintentional polarizing figure in sports in years, and he can win at any time. Tebow doesn’t have the classic motion, doesn’t run the classic offense, but he wins. It’s highly unlikely he will beat Tom Brady and the Patriots, but it was almost as highly unlikely he would beat the Steelers. Don’t bet on him, but don’t count him out either.
ZJ: How do you say no? Well, there is the fact that New England crushed them once in Denver. The Patriots score points rapidly, probably at a higher pace than the Broncos can match. But Tebow and the Broncos have momentum, will score some of their own and should make it a game, at least. That’s a long-winded way of saying don’t be surprised by anything in this game.
4. Are the Ravens now a dangerous, potentially overlooked team? Or should they be feeling the pressure of a team that could be down to one run and now sees the door open?
PM: If the Ravens feel pressure it’s of their own making. They are in the catbird seat in these playoffs. They get Houston and a rookie quarterback in round one, then either Denver at home or New England and its 32nd-ranked defense on the road. Baltimore has Ray Rice, Joe Flacco and a top defense going for it. If they don’t reach the Super Bowl it’s their own fault.
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ZJ: The Ravens should feel pressure for that reason — they’ve been talking for years like 2000 was just yesterday, and it is their own fault if they can’t beat T.J. Yates and New England’s patchwork defense over the next two weeks. They’ve never given Joe Flacco a home playoff game before, and there’s tons of pressure on him. The Ravens are capable of doing it, but I’d buy them only with extreme caution.
5. What happens this weekend? Any chance the Giants give the Packers fits?
PM: The Giants will give the Packers a ton of fits, just like they did in January of 2008 when they visited in Brett Favre’s last game as a Packer. The Giants won that game, and they can win this game. Eli Manning is the league’s most underrated quarterback, and the Giants defensive line brings it with attitude. Tom Coughlin’s teams are always mentally tough, and they will pull the upset this weekend. Elsewhere, Baltimore, New Orleans and New England win.
ZJ: The Giants could win. In fact, that’s probably the most likely upset in using the Vegas point spread. The Saints will win in San Fran and that won’t be an upset. Also, I’ll take the Patriots by 10 or 13 and the Ravens in a close one.