Finishing Strong

The Bengals have won back-to-back games for the first time all season. Can they close out 2008 with three victories in a row? They'll try to do just that Sunday against a two-win Kansas City team at Paul Brown Stadium.

WHO: Cincinnati Bengals (3-11-1) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13)

WHERE: Paul Brown Stadium

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

SERIES: 25th meeting; Chiefs lead series, 13-11.

LAST MEETING: Chiefs won, 27-20, at Arrowhead Stadium on 10/14/07.

KEYS TO THE GAME:Don't look now, but the Bengals have given up just 13 combined points the past two weeks and are 2-1-1 in their past four home games. The pass defense has risen to 14th in the league, which is all the more impressive considering the meager pass rush has just 16 sacks and top CB Johnathan Joseph was lost for the season in November. Thigpen is moving the ball consistently, but the game will swing on his decision making because the Chiefs have little margin for error on the road. ... The Bengals have found a stop-gap solution for their beat up offensive line - give the ball to RB Cedric Benson. He got 37 touches last weekend, and can expect another healthy workload against the Chiefs' run defense allowing 155.9 yards per game. That should buy more time for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who can have success against the Chiefs' young secondary because Kansas City is the only team in the league with a worse pass rush than the Bengals.

KEY INJURIES: Chiefs: CB Maurice Leggett (shoulder) appears unlikely to play. … Bengals: RT Stacy Andrews (knee) and QB Carson Palmer (elbow) are out; WR Chad Johnson (hamstring) is not expected to play.

FAST FACTS: Outside of two wins at Oakland, Kansas City is 1-12 on the road the past two seasons. ... Benson's teams are 6-0-1 in his career when he gets 20-plus carries..

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Bengals:

*G Andrew Whitworth, out for the season with a high ankle sprain, said he would start running in January.

*LT Levi Jones (hamstring) has not practiced this week and is not expected to play Sunday. He was called "doubtful" by coach Marvin Lewis.

*RB Kenny Watson (hamstring) has been limited in practice this week.

*QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will make his 12th start of the season Sunday and said, as he approaches unrestricted free agency, that he would like the chance to play as compared to sitting as a backup again.

*RB Cedric Benson averages 89.6 yards when getting 20 attempts, and his teams are 6-0-1.

Chiefs:

*CB Maurice Leggett, for the second straight day, was limited in practice Thursday and remains questionable for Cincinnati with a shoulder injury. Leggett, the Chiefs' nickel back, has missed the last two games with the injury.

*DE/DT Alfonso Boone participated in a full workout for a second straight day Thursday and looks probable to play against Cincinnati despite battling a thigh injury.

*TE Tony Gonzalez, who needs only nine catches against Cincinnati for a second straight 100-reception season, had a special companion as he made his annual visits to Children's Mercy Hospital this year. Gonzalez, who had a nine-catch, 102-yard receiving day against Cincinnati last year, teamed with "American Idol" winner David Cook, a native of the Kansas City area, for visits to children's wards this year.

*RB Larry Johnson had a mixed day in his last outing against Cincinnati in 2007. He rushed for 119 yards with one TD on 31 carries, but had 34 on one carry in which Deltha O'Neal knocked the ball from his hands at the 1 as he seemed ready to score a second TD. That broke a string of 471 consecutive touches without a fumble. The Chiefs still won the game 27-20.

*QB Tyler Thigpen's 382 rushing yards leads all NFL quarterbacks and is the largest total for a QB in Chiefs history.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Bengals:

Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is aware that Sunday might be his final game with the Bengals -- or not.

He is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the offseason. The Bengals might use their franchise tag on Houshmandzadeh, which would severely limit his mobility in free agency.

"That's about it. (A team employee) asks me enough and guys joke around about it," said Houshmandzadeh, a seventh-round pick and seen initially as Chad Ocho Cinco's caddy. They were teammates at Oregon State.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski saw Ocho Cinco on a scouting trip and liked Houshmandzadeh, too.

"It's not so much about this being my last game but, what's going to happen? I don't know. You just kind of plan accordingly," Houshmandzadeh said.

He ranks second in the NFL in the past two seasons with 204 receptions. Wes Welker of New England is No. 1 with 221 receptions.

Either way, for Houshmandzadeh, it's both a relief and sad that the season is ending.

"Yeah, a little bit, you know," he said when asked if he's glad the long grind has come to an end. "But once the season ends you enjoy the playoffs, I enjoy watching the games, and then once the Super Bowl ends you kind of can't wait for the season to start again.

"When it ends you're kind of like 'Man, I'm glad that's over,' but then you can't wait for it to start over. It's a double-edged sword, a little bit."

Chiefs:

If the Chiefs are to avoid an NFL record for futility in this week's season finale, they will need their best sack day of the season.

Fortunately, against the Cincinnati Bengals they might just have an opponent who can help.

Kansas City, with a mere nine sacks in its previous 15 games, seems likely to set an NFL record for fewest sacks in a 16-game season. Baltimore had only 13 in 1981. The all-time low is 11, which the Colts had in the strike-abbreviated nine-game season of 1982, and the Chiefs might make a run at that mark of futility.

The inability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks is more than an issue involving numbers. Secondary players have to hold their coverage longer, and opposing quarterbacks are able to survey the field while receivers get extra time to work open. It really isn't surprising that opponents are completing 67 percent of their passes and have a 92.4 passer rating against the Chiefs.

The issue is especially embarrassing for a franchise that just a decade ago had one of the league's most feared pass rushes. The days of Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith, the bookend pass rushers who could change the face of a game with their sack-and-strip game, are long over, of course.

But then, one only has to go back just a year to remember when Jared Allen led the league in sacks with 15 1/2 in 2007. Of course, Carl Peterson traded Allen when he didn't negotiate a long-term deal with his designated franchise player.

The Chiefs thought players like defensive ends Tamba Hali and Turk McBride, linebackers Donnie Edwards and Derrick Johnson, rookie defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and some blitzing secondary player could replace the pass rush lost in Allen's trade to Minnesota.

Wrong. They've recorded three sacks in a game just once this year, and two sacks in two other contests. But four? Not likely for a team that hasn't had any in 10 games. Cincinnati has given up 90 sacks, third most in the league, but with the Bengals' emphasis on a strong running game, they may not be throwing much when the teams meet Sunday.

PREDICTION: Bengals, 23-21

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