Packers-Bengals keys to the game

Is hell freezing over? Is the IRS going to stop collecting taxes? Perhaps, because when the Green Bay Packers visit the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, one team will be 1-5 and the other will be 5-2.

The perennial-powerhouse Packers, however, are the team with five losses, while the perennially putrid Bengals will be the team with five wins.

Last week's loss to the Vikings was a killer. The Packers looked like they had the game all but in the bag at halftime, and overtime all but salvaged in the final minute. But the Packers suffered a fall-from-ahead loss, all but flat-lining the team's hopes for clinching a playoff berth. Couple that with the continued rash of injuries, and the Packers are in the rare position of having to win most of this week's keys to the game just to have a chance of winning.

1. Running on empty

The Packers enter Sunday's game ranked 30th in the league in rushing offense. Adding injury to insult, that dismal rating came back in the good old days of Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport toting the pigskin. Both players, of course, are out with season-ending injuries. That leaves the running game in the hands of Tony Fisher, who has been a capable role player in his career but never much of a running threat.

Fisher has made one career start, coming during his rookie season against Minnesota. He rushed 25 times for 96 yards in a 26-22 home victory on Dec. 8, 2002.

In the first two years of his career, Fisher averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry. In his last 22 games — encompassing all of last season and the first six games of this season — however, he has rushed 79 times for 244 yards. That's an average of just 3.1 yards per rush.

He'll have to do much better if the Packers hope to keep the Bengals' defense honest. One factor working in the Packers' favor? Cincinnati's run defense ranks 27th, allowing 132 yards per game. Then again, Minnesota's run defense ranked dead last in the league heading into last week, and the Packers couldn't run the ball a lick.

2. Talking trash

When it comes to on-the-field chatter, few players can match wits, or tongues, with Packers cornerback Al Harris and Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson. Both players can walk their talk. Harris is one of the league's most underrated players, while Johnson is among the league's elite receivers. He enters Sunday's game with 43 catches, 655 yards and five touchdowns.

"He's the best I'm going to face this season, period," said an unusually humble Johnson, who added that only Denver's Champ Bailey is a better cornerback in the league.

If Harris can win his matchup against Johnson — the Packers most likely will try to match them up instead of letting Johnson work occasionally against Ahmad Carroll — then the Packers' defense has a chance of keeping the game close. If Johnson proves too much even for Harris to handle, the Bengals will be able to unleash their entire playbook.

3. Rudi! Rudi!

One of the top running backs in the league is Rudi Johnson, a punishing, between-the-tackles workhorse. Coming off a 1,454-yard season, Johnson has rushed for 609 yards, good for seventh in the league. In last week's loss to Pittsburgh, however, Johnson carried the ball only 12 times.

The usually quiet Johnson voiced his displeasure with his limited role in the showdown game, so expect the Bengals to hand the ball to Johnson early and often.

The Packers have many problems, but their run defense has been solid. They rank 11th in the league in yards allowed per game (101.8).

4. Heeeeeeeeere's Carson

A major reason for Cincinnati's early success is the play of third-year quarterback Carson Palmer, who is showing why he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He is the league's second-rated passer — behind only Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger — with 1,800 yards (second in the league), 13 touchdowns (second in the league, behind Brett Favre's 14) and only four interceptions.

Harris should hold his own against Chad Johnson, which means Palmer will have to turn to the likes of T.J. Houshmandzadeh (27 catches) to keep the chains moving.

Palmer is a budding star, but he is still a young quarterback who can be rattled if he's rushed and his No. 1 option has been taken away. The Steelers sacked Palmer twice and recorded two interceptions in last week's 27-13 win at Cincinnati. Look for Packers defensive coordinator Jim Bates to take a page from Pittsburgh's playbook and blitz more than usual.

5. Nice to meet you

OK, Antonio Chatman, Andrae Thurman and Taco Wallace aren't exactly Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson and Terrence Murphy, but that's who Favre gets to throw passes to for the rest of the season.

Neither Chatman, Thurman nor Wallace are game-changing players, but they must fill the voids the best they can, otherwise defenses will strangle the Packers' attack by double- or triple-teaming Donald Driver.

Thurman at least has some experience working with Favre and the Packers' offense. Look for Favre to get Thurman involved, as well as tight ends David Martin and Donald Lee, who have been just about the only two positive surprises on the team this season.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com


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