There are several games this weekend of interest to Bengals fans with an eye on next April’s draft. Here’s a capsule look at each, starting with the clash (and I use the term loosely) between the Bengals and Browns in Cleveland. First, just for reference, the standings headed into Sunday:
Cincinnati Bengals @ Cleveland Browns. To say that Cleveland is in disarray after ringing up loss No. 10 last Monday night would probably be an understatement. Head coach Romeo Crennel and, in all probability, general manager Phil Savage are dead men walking. Star wide receiver Braylon Edwards is doing his best Ocho Cinco impersonation and demanding a trade. Their punter, Dave Zastudil, is hurt, and with Kellen Winslow out with an ankle injury and Steve Heiden lost against the Eagles with a torn ACL, the Browns are down to their third string at tight end. Even Dawg Pound Daily is down on their chances.
Unlike Steve, I’m not even going to venture a guess on this one, because I have no faith in the Bengals’ ability to string together two good games. I do agree that, as as head coach Marvin Lewis said, the 2008 Bengals have shown more mental toughness than past teams and don’t look like they’ve packed it in for the year, as so many Bengals squads did in the Nineties. But it’s a division game and a road game, and the Bengals haven’t won either this year. If they fail to break those streaks in Cleveland, Bengals fans can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they won’t drop any further in the draft rankings, and could even move back up.
As for the Browns, currently picking 7th, a fifth win could put them in a scrum with the Jags (5-10), Packers (5-9) and 49ers (5-9), depending on what Green Bay and San Francisco do this weekend. Of those four teams, Cleveland has the strongest strength of schedule, so if all were 5-10 after this weekend, Cleveland would drop to 10th overall. If Cleveland loses to Cincinnati, the team stays at 7, even if Oakland and/or Seattle gets a fourth win because, again, Cleveland loses the strength of schedule tiebreaker against both teams.
San Francisco 49ers @ St. Louis Rams. The Rams and Chiefs are currently tied for the second and third picks. If the Bengals do win in Cleveland, then a loss by the Rams or Chiefs would close the door on the second overall pick for the Bengals. If the Bengals win and both the Rams and Chiefs lose, Cincinnati can pick no higher than fourth.
Chances of a Rams win appear slight, even though they are playing a far-from-imposing San Francisco team. When the two division rivals met back in week 11, the 49ers blew the doors off of the Rams, jumping out to a 32-point lead in the first half and eventually winning 35-16. Current Rams QB Mark Bulger is arguably having a worse year than former Rams QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitz has thrown more TDs and fewer picks than Bulger, through Bulger’s overall QB rating remains nine-tenths of a point ahead of Fitzpatrick’s. So he’s got that going for him. Head coach Jim Haslett, who was just hired in September, may be on the way out. A bright spot for the Rams is that this time around, they’ll have RB Steven Jackson in the lineup. Since Jackson was made a starter in ’04, the Rams are 21-33 when he plays, 1-10 when he doesn’t. Still, in their first clash with the 49ers, it wasn’t the Rams ground game hurting — Antonio Pittman actually rushed for a career-high 95 yards — but their D, which allowed San Francisco to score every time it reached the red zone.
Miami Dolphins @ Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are coming off a soul-crushing loss to the Chargers last weekend in which they coughed up a double-digit lead in the final 1:13. The collapse cost long-time GM “King” Carl Peterson his job, which likely means head coach Herm Edwards will be ushered out shortly as well. Over at Arrowhead Addict, Merlin asks the $64K question: “It will be interesting to see how the team responds to the obvious job jeopardy that Herm and the whole staff is in.”
Indeed. Losses like the Chiefs’ last week are the kind that cause players to start making offseason plans, even without front office and coaching turmoil. Meanwhile, 9-5 Miami comes in looking to stay in the AFC playoff race with the Ravens, Patriots and Jets, all of whom are also 9-5. With their victory over the Jaguars last night, the Indianapolis Colts locked down one AFC wild card spot, so options have narrowed for all four teams. On paper, this looks like an easy victory for the Dolphins, but Phin Phanatic points out one big potential equalizer: the weather. It’s supposed to be about 10 degrees in Kansas City Sunday, and the ‘Fins are lousy in the cold. And while KC lost in the end last week, they had the Chargers dead to rights for most of the game. So between the Chiefs and the Rams, a victory by Kansas City would be the least surprising.
New York Jets @ Seattle Seahawks. Pity Seattle. At 3-11, the Seahawks finish up the season with games against playoff hopefuls in the Jets, and at playoff-bound Arizona. With Arizona likely to be resting players, they probably have a better chance in the desert than they do when Brett Favre comes to town to face his old coach. The Hawks are coming off their third win of the season, a 23-20 victory over the Rams, and have been better in recent weeks. In their first eight games, the Seahawks lost by 10 or more points five times. But since a 26-7 pounding by Philly in week nine, Seattle has only had a single double-digit loss, to the Cowboys. Miami squeaked by with a 2-point victory, New England bested them by just a field goal, as did Washington, and Arizona topped them by 6.
And while the Hawks are playing teams tough, the Jets have been having engine trouble. After beating Tennessee soundly in week 12, they have dropped games to Denver and San Francisco, and would have lost to division rival Buffalo last week were it not for boneheaded playcalling by the Bills. New York’s defense has given up 85 points in the last three weeks. A tough December travel schedule is almost certainly part of the problem. The Jets began the month flying out to San Fran, then returned to the East Coast to play Buffalo, now go back to Seattle and then finish up in Miami.
In short, an upset victory by Seattle is within the realm of possibility. That would keep them behind the Bengals in the draft pick standings, no matter what Cincinnati does in Cleveland. Conversely, a Bengals win combined with a loss by the Seahawks and/or the Raiders will drop the Bengals lower in the rankings. A win by the Bengals and a loss by both would drop Cincinnati to the No. 6 spot.
Houston Texans @ Oakland Raiders. Oakland has lost three straight, and the last two in particular have been butt-whippings. San Diego destroyed them 34-7 two weeks ago, and New England blew them up 49-26. That’s 83 points surrendered in two games. Add in the 20-13 loss to KC three weeks ago, and than number goes over 100. Houston, meanwhile, has won four straight, including last week’s one-point victory over Tennessee. At 7-7, the Texans still have a shot at their first winning record in team history, so while they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention, they still have something to play for. On the other sideline, the Raiders are banged up, their fans no longer care, and there’s a a war going on among the coaches. Stick a fork in the Raiders, they’re done. The only thing that will keep Oakland picking behind Cincinnati next April is a complete collapse by the Bengals.