Bengals desperate to save season against Saints

Published 10:53 pm Saturday, November 18, 2006

They say defense wins championships — they being everyone except loquacious Bengals receiver Chad Johnson.

“I’d like to be the first person to say that the offense is going to carry us,” Johnson said.

The proclamation came as Cincinnati prepared to play New Orleans in a game the Bengals (4-5) desperately need after a crushing 49-41 loss to San Diego last week.

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“I feel that offensively after our performance last week, you want to move forward from that,” Johnson said. “Scoring 41 points is a good thing, and hopefully we can continue that success these last seven games and give ourselves a chance to get down to Miami.”

By Johnson’s logic, the Saints (6-3) also would be a strong contender to get to the Super Bowl in Miami.

Both teams have quarterbacks who have performed well coming off of major offseason surgery: a reconstructed knee ligament for Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer and a throwing-shoulder operation to repair a damaged labrum and torn rotator cuff for the Saints’ Drew Brees.

Each quarterback threw for career highs in yardage last weekend, Palmer for 440 and Brees 398.

And each offense boasts a Heisman Trophy winner from USC, Palmer for the Bengals and rookie Reggie Bush, who scored a spectacular touchdown on a double reverse last weekend, for the Saints.

The problem for both teams is they each put up eye-popping numbers on offense last week and still lost. Plagued by three lost fumbles, New Orleans fell 38-31 at Pittsburgh despite racking up 517 yards against a well-respected defense. The Bengals’ setback was perhaps more demoralizing as they gave up a franchise-record 42 points in the second half in front of their own fans.

Think the Louisiana Superdome scoreboard operator will be busy Sunday? The oddsmakers do, placing the over-under in the low 50s.

Saints coach Sean Payton is not sure he agrees.

“It’s hard to predict how the game might unfold and I know better,” Payton said. “Sometimes games take on a certain rhythm or tempo to them and it may be different than you want it.”

In two of their three losses this season, the Saints have given up big passing and running plays. Willie Parker broke off runs of 72 and 76 yards against New Orleans last week, while Ben Roethlisberger’s 264 yards passing included 37- and 38-yard touchdown passes.

With Palmer throwing the ball and Rudi Johnson running it for Cincinnati, that could spell trouble for New Orleans.

But the Saints’ defense also has looked anywhere from competent to very good in victories on the road at Cleveland, Green Bay and Tampa Bay and at home against Atlanta and Philadelphia.

“We had a couple breakdowns last week, but all in all we were pretty strong this season,” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. “There were just a few breakdowns that were definitely correctable.”

And if Payton has his way, Palmer will spend most of the game on the sideline while Deuce McAllister and Bush combine on runs or short passes to methodically move the chains on time-consuming drives.

The Saints have been successful with that approach before, and it’s easier to do at home, where the crowd cooperates by hushing up as the quarterback barks out assignments at the line of scrimmage.

In their victory over Philadelphia, the Saints’ winning drive consumed the final 8:26 as Donovan McNabb watched helplessly.

“One area you put a focus on is the ability to possess the football when you play a good offense,” Payton said.

In practice this week, the Saints emphasized low-risk first- and second-down plays designed to set up third-and-short situations, which can be a recipe for sustaining long scoring drives if executed well.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis promised to counter with some “subtle” changes in defensive schemes this week, although he declined to get more specific. It could mean a change in personnel, giving rookie cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who started two games earlier this season because of injuries, another chance with the first team.

He needs to try something.

While the Saints can be no worse than tied for first in the NFC South with a loss, Cincinnati, after a promising 3-0 start, is now a postseason long shot trying to avoid its first four-game losing streak since 2002, when the Bengals were “the Bungles” as they floundered to a 2-14 record.

“That’s what being a team is all about, being to able to face and deal with both success and adversity,” Lewis said. “When we were 3-0, we weren’t as good as people thought we were and right now we’re not as bad as we were at 4-5. … We got a lot of young guys who are playing football for us right now. We keep pushing them. We need the veteran guys to play harder and play better and push these young guys along and for our playmakers to make plays.”