PREDICTING THE OUTCOME

It's awfully early in the season to be calling anything a must-win game, but the Dolphins need Sunday's game at Cincinnati probably more than they've needed a Week 2 victory in a long, long time. Here's how we think the game will unfold.

There are many reasons why this is such a big game, and one of them is that A.J. Feeley will be making his first start at quarterback and the Dolphins have to pray he does a good job or it could be a long season of back and forth at the position.

Lamar Gordon also will start at halfback, and he represents the Dolphins' best hope for a running game.

So it's critical that the Dolphins be efficient offensively in this game, particularly because they're facing a Cincinnati defense that got demolished by the Jets in the opener.

Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati with the reputation as a defensive guru, but he simply doesn't have the horses yet to make the Bengals that effective defensively.

The Bengals gave up almost 200 yards rushing to Curtis Martin last Sunday, so there's hope the Dolphins could have some success running the ball tonight.

Even if they don't, the Cincinnati secondary is highly suspect, which means the Dolphins could have success throwing downfield, which is something they must do.

Chris Chambers was used mostly on short passes last week, but the Dolphins need to get him the ball down the field against the Bengals.

Things will be a lot more difficult on the other side of the ball because the Dolphins are facing a dangerous offense with some key ingredients missing.

Defensive tackle Tim Bowens is expected to miss his second consecutive game because of a bad back, while cornerback Patrick Surtain also probably will sit out because of a groin injury.

Even Surtain's replacement, Reggie Howard, is hobbled, which could put rookie Will Poole in a tough spot against a very good Bengals wide receving group.

The Dolphins run defense isn't nearly as bad as last week's numbers would suggest, and remember that Tennessee rarely threw the ball because the Dolphins offense presented so little a threat last week.

The Dolphins' best chance on defense is to stop Rudi Johnson on the ground and force Carson Palmer into some mistakes at quarterback. As we said, it won't be easy.

Because of all the changes, it's still very difficult to get on read on these Dolphins, and we flopped last week in predicting a victory over Tennessee.

Based on the Bengals' progress under Lewis and the many uncertainties surrounding the Dolphins, it's easy to see why Cincinnati is a five-point favorite in this game.

Things will get better for the Dolphins eventually, but it might take a while.

For now, we're looking at an 0-2 start.

The call: Bengals 24, Dolphins 17.


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