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AFC Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Paul Brown Stadium
New York Jets vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Chad Ochocinco stood beside his locker late Sunday night, his left knee throbbing from when he slipped and fell on the frozen Meadowlands turf during warmups, his pride, as Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis intimated, bruised even worse. In the days leading up to the playoff-bound Bengals' regular-season finale against the Jets, Ochocinco, as is his habit, acted as his own Don King in hyping his matchup against Darrelle Revis, the third-year cornerback who has become the league's preeminent cover man. Ochocinco had at one point suggested that the clash ought to be televised on pay-per-view.
If it had been, it would have been the football equivalent of a first-round knockout. Revis stayed as close to Ochocinco as the tiger stripes on the receiver's helmet, and by the end of the first half, when Ochocinco was mercifully pulled from the game, he had been targeted by quarterback Carson Palmer four times but had no catches. His streak of 120 games with a reception had been broken.
"I've been saying it all year," a chastened Ochocinco said by his locker. "He's extremely good. I'm going to get this knee right, and I'm looking forward to Saturday. I haven't been hurt all year." Then he knocked a few times on the locker's wall, for luck, but instead of an resounding thump, his knuckles produced a hollow clang. The lockers in the visitors' dressing room at Giants Stadium are made of sheet metal, not wood. Ochocinco looked perturbed.
Nothing went right for the Bengals on Sunday night, in a game they had insisted all week they would try their best to win, though they'd already clinched the AFC North and at least one playoff game on their home field. Ochocinco's struggles against Revis amounted to the least surprising aspect of the 37--0 loss to the Jets, who by winning earned a wild-card berth and a first-round rematch against Cincinnati this Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. Less predictable, and more worrying, was that the Bengals' offense gained yardage on only three of 15 first-half plays—runs of one and nine yards and a five-yard illegal-contact penalty; that Palmer, the two-time Pro Bowl selection, completed one of 11 passes for zero yards (a 1.7 quarterback rating) before he was pulled with 9:47 left in the third quarter and a 30--0 deficit; and that the Cincy defense, which entered the game as the NFL's second best against the rush, yielded 257 yards on the ground. It was a night on which the Bengals couldn't even properly defend a PAT: They were penalized for having 12 men on the field for the extra point after New York's second touchdown.
"We got flat-out beat in every phase of the game, top to bottom," a stone-faced Palmer said. "They played harder than we did, played a lot better than we did."
Theories abounded in the Cincinnati locker room as to how the evening's result could be reversed a mere six days later. The Jets, fighting for their playoff lives, had deployed every trick in their playbook, and each would be analyzed and strategized against during this week's film study, Ochocinco said. The Bengals are an unusually resilient group who will feed off their home crowd, Palmer said. Cedric Benson, the 1,250-yard rusher who was given Sunday off, could gash the Jets' top-ranked defense. The probable returns of three injured defensive starters—end Robert Geathers, tackle Domata Peko and free safety Chris Crocker—could stifle New York's top-ranked rushing attack and force the Jets' offense, which ran 57 times on Sunday and threw only 16 passes, to rely on the erratic arm of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.
And perhaps Revis will trip a couple of times, allowing Ochocinco to make a few big plays. And perhaps, say two holiday seasons from now, we'll go with our families to the multiplex to see the stirring movie that will have been made about these Bengals, who will have overcome so much—the snapping, like heartstrings, of Palmer's left ACL and MCL on the second play of their last playoff game, in 2006; the dismal intervening years, a montage of losses and fumbles and mug shots; this season's tragedies, the sudden deaths of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife, Vikki, in October, and of wide receiver Chris Henry in December—to become the NFL's unlikeliest Super Bowl winner in recent decades.
The reality, though, as put into stark relief by Sunday's outcome, is that these are two teams headed in distinctly different directions. The Jets won five of their final six games to surge into the playoffs, and allowed neither a 100-yard receiver nor a 100-yard rusher in any of them. The Bengals, after a 9--3 start, lost three of their last four—the victory a 17--10 nail-biter against the 4--12 Chiefs, in which Cincinnati gained only 274 yards against the league's third-worst defense—and it's been more than a month since they've demonstrated the wherewithal to contend with a running game as potent, or a defense as stout, as the Jets'.