Bengals march on without Henry; 10 things to watch this weekend
Grieving Bengals prepare to battle red-hot Chargers
Cowboys running backs need to shoulder burden down the stretch
What to watch: The buzzing rumor mill, Percy Harvin's head, more
It seems cold to write about football and the Cincinnati Bengals, what with just one day passing since the death of wide receiver Chris Henry. Three children will grow up without a father. A life on the way to being better-lived was ended.
I talked with T.J. Houshmandzadeh on Thursday night at some length about Henry. They'd actually gotten closer since Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for Seattle, with Henry viewing him as a mentor and frequently calling for advice -- and I'll write some of that in Monday Morning Quarterback, as well as what sort of football potential was snuffed out when Henry died in a Charlotte hospital Thursday.
On Sunday, the Bengals will play with heavy hearts in San Diego. After a moment of silence at Qualcomm Stadium, 9-4 Cincinnati will take on the 10-3 Chargers in a last-gasp try for the second seed in the AFC playoffs.
"It's been somber, obviously,'' offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the team learned of Henry's death. "We kind of went through this with the death of [defensive coordinator] Mike Zimmer's wife a couple of months ago, but you never get used to something like this. With this one, there's so much shock. I don't know how it'll affect us Sunday.''
Bratkowski's message was much the same as head coach Marvin Lewis': "I told the guys, 'There but for the grace of God go us.' Embrace what we have. Live our lives. That's what we have to do.''
Sometimes teams get inspired with events like this. Sometimes they get deflated. "You can go either way,'' Houshmandzadeh said. "But they have a perfect guy to lead them in a situation like this. Marvin's great. He's a good person to have in a position of power because the guys respect him and he'll always do the right thing.''
The odds are against Cincinnati; the Chargers are simply a better team, on an eight-game winning streak with surprising defensive depth surfacing to supplement a scary-good, nearly Foutsian passing game.
The Bengals have changed, in two ways. They're a running team now, not a team that relies on Carson Palmer's right arm. In Palmer's last full season as quarterback in 2007 (2008 was marred by an aching elbow for much of the year) , Cincinnati ran on 41 percent of the offensive snaps. In 2009, it's a 51-percent running team. And it relies on a stout defense.
It's easy to understand why the Bengals have changed. They couldn't beat 'em, so they joined 'em. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore both strong on defense with solid run games, Lewis decided to do a U-turn away from an over-reliance on Palmer. They've won four games this year when Palmer was held under 190 yards passing; last week, at Minnesota, Palmer threw for an alarmingly low 94 yards.
That prompted me to call Palmer this week and ask: "Is there anything wrong with your arm?''
"Not at all,'' Palmer said from the Bengals' locker room Wednesday. "My elbow's great. It's 100 percent. Especially for this being Week 15, I'm fine.''
Palmer said he's onboard with what the Bengals are doing. "Our mindset since OTAs was to be a different team,'' he said. "We knew our defense would be good, and if we could control field position and control the clock, we'd have a really good chance to be a good team. We used to drop back 35, 40 times a game and lose. I'm fine with throwing 25 times a game, because we're winning.''
Bratkowski told me the only time Palmer's support wavers is when the Bengals take the pedal off the metal early in the second half and allow foes to creep back in games -- or when they're losing. "This was the model we thought gave us the best chance to win,'' said Bratkowski. "What's won our division in recent years? A great defense and a ball-control offense. We made the commitment that we'd be a physical running team, and that became a great friend of the defense.''
The Bengals, even if they succumb to reality and their emotions and lose Sunday, are still on course for the AFC North title and either the third or fourth seed in the AFC playoffs. That could bring the Broncos or Ravens -- or Jets or Dolphins -- to Cincinnati for a wild-card game in January. In a season of tragedy off the field, beating back the two best teams in the AFC in 2008 in their own division is a major triumph in itself.
About Last Night
I had Peyton Manning as the 25th-best player in history in my "Monday Morning Quarterback'' book prior to this season. I think he's got to be in the teens by now, and he'll keep rising. (Thirteen through 19 in the book: Ronnie Lott, Bob Lilly, Joe Greene, Brett Favre, Jack Lambert, Bronko Nagurski, Anthony Munoz.)
Manning is 33. He was magnificent in the 35-31 win at Jacksonville, going 13 of 13 in the first half, and perfect until a catchable ball bounced off Dallas Clark for an interception. Four more touchdown passes, including the finale that won the game, a high-arcing in-stride 65-yard bomb to Reggie Wayne. He's on pace for his most accurate season, and his best yardage season. "The most consistent QB -- week in and week out -- that I've ever seen,'' tweeted Hall of Famer Troy Aikman last night in the middle of the third quarter.
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