The slate is clean, all patterns erased. The playoffs represent a completely fresh challenge. Sure, the New York Jets, plagued by inconsistency in ’09, could still play sloppily with everything on the line. But a new chapter has begun, and that fact is beyond dispute. 

This circumstance can be construed as either a gift or curse. For New York, the former designation definitely applies. They needed everything short of divine intervention to secure an invitation. But a superpower sitting idle with a bye must overcome the pressure of preserving a superb season, without the safety net of second chances. Momentum is fickle.

One wonders how to categorize the Cincinnati Bengals.

They can neither be classified an elite outfit, nor hopeful party crasher. As a golden opportunity for greatness draws closer, the Bengals must either find, or redefine themselves. It is a formless squad at the moment, completely embarrassed by the Jets last week, while resting a few key players.

Their message is inconsistent. Carson Palmer thought they had a legitimate game plan and aspirations for victory against the Jets.

“I don’t think we were vanilla at all.  We came out.  We had a game plan and we went after it.  We just didn’t play our game plan well,” claimed Palmer on a conference call. Chad Ochocinco differed, suggesting their scheme simplistic, a humbling defeat masquerading an underlying trick of deception. “Similar to a preseason game,” he said of the Bengals’ approach.

Cincinnati possesses an elite receiver in Ochocinco, and an accomplished quarterback in Carson Palmer. Recent editions of the team had relied on an explosive offensive aerial show for success. But the Bengals underwent a makeover for ‘09, transforming into a smash mouth squad. Bruising running back Cedric Benson, unavailable Sunday night, became their key player, the tempo-setter. Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine does not need to be reminded. “He’s a key component of their success,” said Pettine. “He’s rested now a week, which I think was a goal of theirs on Sunday.  No matter what happened, they should have him rested going into the playoffs.  He’s been their guy.  They’ve transitioned in the period of a year to a run first offense and he’s the centerpiece of that.  Add to that now that he’s rested, it’s a big challenge for us.  The offensive line is a solid group and I think they threw it a little bit more on Sunday than they are planning to do this Saturday.  Stopping Benson is a critical thing for us,” concluded the coordinator.  

Featuring a fleet and tenacious group of linebackers, and a dynamic duo at corner, the Bengals’ defense quickly earned respect around the league. After nearly a decade under his watch, it seems they had finally cultivated a philosophy and approach suiting Marvin Lewis, an acclaimed defensive mind. Play the ground and pound and stout defense, protect possession, watch the wins pile up…

The Bengals’ resilience has been thoroughly tested, their exhibited toughness unparalleled. When assessing all the adversity they have been through in 2009, it becomes apparent Cincinnati has accomplished plenty already. The fact they even have their flag planted in playoff soil is quite remarkable.

Between the discouraging setbacks of week one and seventeen, the Bengals were forced to survive years of hardship condensed into mere days. They had to contend with the death of Wide Receiver Chris Henry, a terrible tragedy. Henry, dogged by off-field transgressions throughout his early career, seemed to be transitioning toward a more positive mindset before a domestic dispute evolved into something unfathomable. In addition to the crushing death of Henry, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer lost his wife Vikki at age 50. 

Defensive End Antwan Odom and talented rookie Rey Maualuga would end up on injured reserve, the latter injury especially devastating, compromising the linebacker unit, which had been essential to the Bengals’ excellent defense.

The Bengals have endured a campaign that would have demolished a lesser team. They persevered. The returns of key defensive pieces like Domata Peko, Chris Crocker, and Robert Geathers for the playoffs shoulder bolster a unit that appeared beaten in their previous outing.

The Jets and Bengals do sport similarities. They are both run conscious, but the Jets are pretty much forced to focus on that facet, while the Bengals kill the clock on their own volition. They both boast strong defenses, especially against the pass. But the trajectory of their two seasons could not be more divergent.

The Bengals’ journey, though blighted by tragedy, reflected their conservative philosophy. There were flashes of the total dominance Cincinnati will no doubt aspire toward in 2010, especially a clean sweep of the defending champion Steelers, but overall, the Bengals grinded, and looked pretty exhausted themselves down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the Jets were consistently bizarre, blowing sure wins, luckily avoiding losses, a championship caliber team except at the most important position. No doubt, the Jets have turned a rare trick in 2009, developing a rookie quarterback, who appeared overmatched at times, while making the playoffs. To offset Mark Sanchez’s predictable growing pains, the Jets ran the ball with ferocity, defended the pass expertly, and stopped opposing rushers admirably, especially considering they were largely without the services nose tackle Kris Jenkins.

The availability of David Harris, stricken with an ankle injury, is pivotal for the Jets. Harris will be a key ingredient in stopping Cedric Benson.  “It’s getting better. I’ve been up here all day getting treatment, getting rehab and doing everything I can to get back on the field. Hopefully I’ll be fine by Saturday,” said Harris.

On a somewhat fascinating note, Cedric Benson admitted earlier this week to not even knowing who David Harris was. “I had a couple of guys tell me that. I’m only the leading tackler on the number one defense,” said Harris with a laugh. “It’s just hard to not know who I am.” If Harris does play, he’ll have a chance to make a personal introduction. “If I play, I’m sure I’ll introduce myself early in the game to him. We’ll see,” said Harris, laughing again.

David Harris probably has a rude greeting in mind for Cedric Benson, but will the star linebacker suit up?

The Jets’ strange adventure ultimately added up to nine wins, and a chance many feel they don’t deserve. Well, to quote noted frontier philosopher William Munney, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” The Jets have a spectacular running game and a defense flush with elite level talent. If they reach the Super Bowl, it will be an incredible story, but not an inconceivable one. Stranger things have happened than a great defense and running game carrying an otherwise flawed team to the promise land.

As for this game: I keep coming back to one question: Who’s making a big play for Cincinnati? Who’s breaking this game for the Bengals? It’ll be close, for sure, the dynamic rushing attacks battling for supremacy, both defenses up to the task. But I simply see the Jets, for all their issues at quarterback and other quirks, possessing more big play capability. For instance, the Bengals do not have wildcard like Brad Smith. “When we brought him in, the main thing is we thought we were getting a heck of a receiver, which we still feel that way,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said regarding Smith. “He came with an asterisk that he can do certain things. I said last week that the greatest thing about Brad is you can put him under center. He doesn’t have to solely work out of the shotgun. That’s not something easy to do. His role has expanded this year through the course of the season. Leon (Washington) was kind of the guy we used initially in the Seminole package.  Brad was a part of it. When Leon went down, Brad became more involved with that.”

Smith can make an impact on special teams, too, another factor that could tilt the contest toward the road team. Lauded Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff on Smith: “I went to Missouri and worked him out.  I loved him.  I feel like the prognostic here because last week when you guys asked me I said, ‘When is the only time you’ve seen him with the ball in his hands and didn’t like him?’  He’s pretty good.  I loved Brad with the ball and thought he should be a teams guy.  When I was at Missouri, we had talked about it.  The place was in mourning when he was leaving.  They loved him, everybody from the equipment guys to the trainers to the coaches.  He’s just such an athlete.”

Smith could be the difference

This is not a slight to the Bengals’ principal playmakers, compared to the Jets. Just match-ups.

The Jets secondary will be the difference.

 New York 20 Cincinnati 10

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