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Six-Pack Of Hu-Dey: Is Cincinnati's Game Against Baltimore A Must-Win?

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IT'S TIME TO ESTABLISH THE RUN. Carson Palmer's 50 pass attempts against New England was understandable. Anytime you solemnly walk into the lockerroom with 24-3 half time deficit, you're going to air the football in the second half. That's just the natural order of things. However, in the first half against New England, Benson was the team's only running back to record a rush attempt. If you include Carson Palmer's sneaks and roll outs, the Bengals ran the football 13 times against 20 passes (one of which was a sack). And when Benson did rush the football, he only averaged 2.8 yards/rush.

We're not saying that the team's lack of effective running doomed Cincinnati from the start last week -- I still believe that title belongs to the defense. However, the team will have to establish a far more effective rushing attack if they're going to get their season going and that begins with the Baltimore Ravens this weekend.

During both wins over the Ravens last season, Bengals running back Cedric Benson averaged 118.5 yards rushing on 30.5 rush attempts, recording a rushing touchdown in each game. Admittedly the Bengals defense carried the bulk of the team's sweep last season against Baltimore, only allowing the Ravens offense to average 236 yards total between both contests. Still, the team's rushing attack averaged over six first downs on the ground, killing the clock with 34:19 in the first content and an impressive 40 minutes of ball control to complete the season sweep.

Cincinnati's success last year was a result of the team's rushing offense. The weapons added this year, such as Jermaine Gresham, Terrell Owens and Jordan Shipley were brought in to make the passing offense more effective and balance everything out. But if this team can't get the rushing offense going, they could be in trouble.

JONATHAN FANENE INJURY WILL HURT. File this under "Mr. Obvious Makes An Impressive Observation." Reports surfaced yesterday that Bengals defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene could miss up to five weeks with a hamstring tear.

Fanene: The most underrated, under-appreciated and outside Bengals obsessionism, unknown player on this squad.

Joe Reedy called that a conservative estimate, saying Fanene's time could be about two weeks.

Losing Fanene will hurt this defense. It's not that he's irreplaceable, no one is. Fanene plays across the defensive line and does it effectively. Aside from Antwan Odom's explosion against the Green Bay Packers last year, Fanene is arguably the team's most productive pass rusher on the defensive line.

With Fanene being out, we'll have to observe the unknowns. We figure that Michael Johnson will rotate more snaps at defensive end than he did against the Patriots (all snaps were at linebacker). However, if there is a Fanene "replacement" on this team, one could look at Carlos Dunlap, who has the athleticism of a defensive end, though the size to work inside during nickel packages. Frostee Rucker could be a suitable replacement as a utility defensive lineman and he always seems to be effective when he actually gets on the field; but he doesn't have the overall production pedigree as Fanene has.

THE GENERATION GAP. The Bengals have two sets of weapons in the passing game that come from two different age groups. Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco aren't just the starting wide receivers, they are the veterans, combing for 19 receptions for 212 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots.

On the other hand, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley, two rookies, are making their own noise, recording a combined 11 receptions for 107 yards receiving.

There really shouldn't be a reason that with Cincinnati's arsenal of weapons that the Bengals offense ever struggles.

COVERAGE AND RETURN TEAMS NEED TO SHOW UP. Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons remains irate after the team's performance against New England.

“I’m still pissed off,” Simmons said on Thursday. “The 11 guys that are on the field, it’s their job to make a play and it’s my job to put them in position to make a play and we failed on both accounts.”

Along with giving up a touchdown on kickoff to open the second half, the Bengals coverage on kickoff left a lot to be designed, with two of the Bengals five kickoffs resulting in a starting field position beyond the 30-yard for New England's offense. Considering the Patriots punted one time -- which was downed -- the Bengals didn't have a punt return game. However, the kickoff return game was just as poor, with no returns going further than Adam Jones' team-leading 19-yard return early in the first quarter.

PLAYOFF CHANCES REMAIN THE SAME. With Cincinnati having to deal with New England and Baltimore out of the gate this season, there's a chance that Cincinnati could start the season 0-2. I'm not saying that they will, considering Cincinnati's recent history against Baltimore favors the Bengals with better matchups than what the Jets brought against the Ravens. Still, it's the NFL. Anything can happen (see: gate, nipple).

Since 2002, when the league went through realignment, 57.3% (55 of 96) of all playoff teams began the year either at 1-1 or 0-2 and four of the past nine Super Bowl champions didn't have a perfect record after the first two weeks of the season. In 2008, three teams started the season 0-2 and ended up making the playoffs (Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers). On the other hand, last year, no playoff team started the season winless through the first two weeks.

Alternatively, all four Super Bowl participants in the past two years started the season with an undefeated 2-0 record.

...BUT IS SUNDAY A MUST-WIN GAME? If the Bengals go 0-2, there would still be little reason to panic. Calling Sunday's game a "must-win" could be premature, but it might be accurate too.

It's not that Cincinnati's deficit towards the playoff would be too much to overcome. Many good teams go through a brief struggle during an NFL season and Sunday's loss to the Patriots looked more like a monumental struggle to get themselves ready for a regular season game rather than simply lacking talent. And one could argue that struggling early is better than struggling late when you're fighting to make the playoffs.

But there's no excuses now, facing the Baltimore Ravens who beat a team that Cincinnati couldn't compete against last year in the New York Jets. Once Cincinnati hits their week six bye, the Bengals will have a stretch of games against the Steelers, Colts, Jets, Saints, Ravens and Chargers.

Calling Sunday's game a must-win could be premature, but in reality Cincinnati's tough schedule keeps that margin for losses at a minimum and they need to keep division tie-breakers in their court.

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