• Compare Cris' picks to other Yahoo! Sports experts
If the Bengals are going to be placed in the elite class of AFC teams, they'll have to get used to playing in big games. Sunday's AFC North showdown against Pittsburgh will be Cincinnati's first true big game of the season.
The Bengals have a history with the Steelers, but it's hard to have a rivalry when one of the teams isn't very good. Still, there's a lot of bad blood between the teams, and Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator, used to be the head coach in Cincy. Marvin Lewis has gone as far as banning his players from talking to the media outside of Cincinnati. Call it the Chad Johnson rule.
I don't necessarily mind it. The Bengals are very young and inexperienced, and Lewis knows his team must be focused to beat the Steelers. Making sure his players don't give the Steelers any bulletin board material is a good idea, especially when you have an outspoken and talented receiver like Johnson.
Here's a closer look at the best matchups of Week 7:
THE PICK SIX
|1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals – Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) Preview|
2nd, AFC North
1st, AFC North
|Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be back after a one-week absence, but will he be able to get out of the pocket and elude the rush with a hyperextended left knee? Also, Hines Ward is hampered with a bad hamstring. |
A win would give Cincinnati a three-game lead over Pittsburgh, but it would be way too early for the Bengals to start making division title T-shirts and hats. Baltimore can shut down the Cincinnati offense, and the Steelers, despite their 1-2 home record, should be tough to beat at Heinz Field. The Bengals are a very good team, but the AFC North race wouldn't be over by any means.
Prediction: Cincinnati. The Bengals can pack eight guys at the line of scrimmage to stop Pittsburgh's running game because Deltha O'Neal and Tory James are capable of guarding any of the Steelers' receivers one on one.
As for Pittsburgh's defense, which has always had problems defending the pass, the pressing questions are: Can the Steelers double-team Chad Johnson? Or will they blitz and rely on a lot of man-to-man coverage? Pittsburgh will put pressure on Carson Palmer, but the Bengals' big-play offense and their ability to take the Steelers' wide receivers out of the game will be the difference.
|2. San Diego Chargers at Philadelphia Eagles – Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) Preview|
3rd, AFC West
T-3rd, NFC East
|The Eagles had a bye week to lick their wounds from a 23-point loss at Dallas, but they will be there at the end. We know that road games in the NFC East are going to be tough, so losing to the Cowboys wasn't necessarily a big deal, especially after having played at Kansas City the week before. |
There's no team in the NFC that Philadelphia can't beat, and it isn't afraid of any team in its conference. Sure, Andy Reid's club has gotten off to a slow start, but if you look at the injuries the Eagles have suffered and where they are now at 3-2, they're still in good shape.
Prediction: Philadelphia. The Eagles' league-worst rushing attack (64.2 yards per game) goes up against San Diego's run defense, which is the third-best in the league (84.7). That's why I wouldn't be surprised if Philadelphia threw the ball 50 times on Sunday.
The Eagles love to throw the football, so their rushing stats are a little bit deceptive. They're not trying to run the ball, and a lot of their short passes basically serve as running plays. San Diego has no answer for the Donovan McNabb-to-Terrell Owens connection. Quentin Jammer has not been the shutdown cornerback the Chargers thought they were getting when they drafted him fifth overall in 2002.
|3. Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks – Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX) Preview|
1st, NFC East
1st, NFC West
|How much will Flozell Adams' season-ending knee injury impact the Cowboys? A lot. |
We know Drew Bledsoe won't be the same quarterback without his Pro Bowl left tackle. Now, with Adams not protecting his blind side, will Bledsoe get happy feet and rush his throws like he did last year in Buffalo when the Bills' offensive line couldn't protect him? Those are the kinds of concerns the Cowboys will have without Adams.
Ken Hamlin's absence will affect the Seahawks because they'll no longer have their enforcer on defense. There has to be an emotional impact as well due to the way they lost him. It wasn't as if he got injured in a game; players expect injuries. What you don't expect is to have your teammate get beat up at a nightclub the night after a victory.
Prediction: Seattle. I think the Cowboys will be a little tired against the Seahawks offense, which is ranked first in the NFL (407.2 yards per game). Dallas had very physical games the last two weeks against the Eagles and Giants, and I believe the Cowboys will start to feel a little sluggish. They'll be on the road, too.
Seattle is a very physical football team and it should be able to take the ball straight at Dallas' 3-4. The Seahawks' running game, featuring the NFL's leading rusher in Shaun Alexander, will give the Cowboys' defense problems.
|4. Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET (CBS) Preview|
1st, AFC West
T-2nd, NFC East
|Tiki Barber is the most underrated player in the NFL, and I would love to see him get another five to eight touches. He's dangerous, he's a consummate pro and he's great in pass protection. He's also great catching passes out of the backfield. And he hasn't had the fumbling problems that plagued him earlier in his career. |
The Giants should leave Barber in the game like San Diego does with LaDainian Tomlinson. Give him a slight blow but give him the ball, especially near the goal line. Forget that whole Thunder and Lightning thing with Brandon Jacobs. When you get to the goal line, you want to give the ball to your best players. If Tiki is good enough to get the ball from the 20 to inside the 5-yard line, then he's good enough to carry the ball into the end zone. Small backs can be as effective near the goal line because they have the threat of turning the corner on you. When you take him out of the game, you lose that threat.
Prediction: Denver. The Broncos' play-action pass is lethal. You know they're going to run the ball at you, so you have to be concerned about it. Jake Plummer is the best at throwing on the run in the NFL, and Mike Shanahan has done an unbelievable job of having the proper mix of the stretch play that he likes to run and bootlegs with Plummer.
Plummer is not a straight, drop-back passer. He needs to be on the edge trying to make plays. His decision making is the best I've seen in his career, and he has allowed the Broncos to play at the high level that they expect to play on offense week in and week out.
|5. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings – Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX) Preview|
T-3rd, NFC North
T-3rd, NFC North
|The Packers and Vikings would be 0-5 if it wasn't for the Saints, whom both have beaten at home for their only victories. Green Bay and Minnesota are 1-4, but they're only one game out of first place in the NFC North. In a normal divisional race, if a team lost this game, the season would be over. |
That said, I think this is a more critical game for the Vikings. If they lose, I wouldn't be surprised if the team totally implodes with all of the controversy swirling around it from the "Love Boat" scandal.
Prediction: Green Bay. The Vikings get some help with the return of Nate Burleson, who should give Daunte Culpepper a tremendous amount of comfort as his No. 1 target. But Minnesota can't run the football, and its problems with the offensive line will be an issue against Green Bay's defense, which has played well in its last couple of games.
The Packers are still susceptible to the pass, though, so if Daunte can get hot, the Vikings have a chance. And we know how poorly Brett Favre plays in the Metrodome. But I like what I've seen lately from Green Bay, not only in its rout of New Orleans but the last half of the Carolina game in Week 4 when the Packers almost made a big comeback on Monday night.
|6. Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins – Friday, 7 p.m. ET Preview|
2nd, AFC West
3rd, AFC East
|The game has been moved up to Friday due to Hurricane Wilma, and the schedule change will take away some of Miami's home-field advantage. South Florida fans are very fickle anyway when it comes to the Dolphins, who've been having problems selling out games. Now you have people trying to get out of town to escape the hurricane. |
The temperature should be cooler at night, too, so that takes away the natural edge Miami always has at home in September and October. In the Dolphins' season-opening win over Denver, the heat index was over 100. The Chiefs, outside of moving up their schedule, are probably glad they're playing a Friday night game instead of a Sunday afternoon game.
Prediction: Kansas City. I thought it would've been impossible for K.C. to run the ball the way it loves to run it – around 40 times, especially on the left side behind Willie Roaf. Now the Chiefs won't have to deal with the heat. It'll be a beautiful fall evening in South Florida, and the weather will allow Kansas City to gear up its running game and run right at Jason Taylor (if he plays; he's currently questionable with a foot injury).
If Taylor has a bad wheel, Miami's undersized defensive line, with the way it likes to come off the ball, will be at a huge disadvantage. The Chiefs will turn this game into a slugfest and run right over the Dolphins.