Posted December 22, 2011 on AP on Fox
The small crowd at Paul Brown Stadium might as well plan to stay all the way until the end. The Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) positioned themselves for a playoff run by pulling out games in the fourth quarter, when their lack of experience hasn't seemed to get in the way. To keep those postseason hopes intact on Saturday, they'll have to beat the team that's one of the best at extending games. After opening at 1-6, the Arizona Cardinals (7-7) have won six of their past seven, all of them by rallying from second-half deficits. They've won three in overtime during that span, tying the NFL record for a season. They've kept their own playoff chances intact, though barely, heading into the last two weeks of the season. ''If we win each game, and then at the end of the season if we can get into the playoffs, so be it,'' Arizona running back Beanie Wells said. ''But we're not focused on that right now.'' Judging by ticket sales, not a whole lot of folks in Cincinnati are, either. For the sixth time this season, Paul Brown Stadium will have a lot of empty seats, even though there's a bit of noteworthy history on the line this time. The Bengals can secure only their third winning record in the past 21 years and keep themselves in contention for the last AFC wild card berth. Cincinnati finishes at home on Jan. 1 against Baltimore. The Bengals are tied with the Jets (8-6) for the final wild card, although New York has the advantage in the tiebreakers. Usually, playing at home for the last two games would be considered a distinct advantage. The Bengals have gone 5-3 on the road, but only 3-3 in front of some of the smallest crowds in Paul Brown Stadium's 12-year history. ''In the NFL, every team has to play better at home, just naturally with your crowd into it,'' running back Cedric Benson said. ''It's great that it works out in our favor to have the last two games at home, considering we're trying to make the playoffs.'' It'll come down to whether the Bengals can get out of their rut against a team that's on quite a streak. Cincinnati was one of the NFL's biggest surprises at midseason. They've lost four of their past six during the tough part of the schedule, leaving them 0-6 against teams that have either clinched playoff spots or are currently in first place. That lack of success against the good teams could keep them out of the playoffs if they and the Jets both win out. The tiebreaker then would come down to winning percentage of the teams they've beaten, and New York will almost certainly have the edge. Another challenge: One of the AFC's youngest teams may not fully realize the significance of the next two games. ''That's the goal - especially having a young football team - to keep reminding them,'' left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ''They haven't been in this situation a lot. This opportunity doesn't always come by. You've got an opportunity to go make the playoffs, you've got to execute and play your best.'' They've played some of their worst games lately, getting sloppy with penalties and turnovers and defensive breakdowns. Their only consistent threat on offense has been rookie receiver A.J. Green, who leads the NFL with 11 catches of 35 yards or more. He sprained his right shoulder during a 20-13 win in St. Louis, but expects to play on Saturday. Green, the fourth overall pick, will be matched against rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson, the next pick taken. While Green has emerged as one of the NFL's top receivers, Peterson has returned four punts for touchdowns, tying the NFL record. They went head-to-head twice in college, when Green was at Georgia and Peterson at LSU. ''Probably one of the best corners I went against in college,'' Green said. ''He's a special player.'' They split their two matchups in college. This one will have bearing on the NFL playoffs. ''It brings a lot of intrigue to this matchup,'' Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ''It'll be an exciting one to watch.'' A victory would give the Cardinals their first five-game winning streak since 1977. Also, they would stay in playoff contention if they got a win and either Atlanta or Detroit lost. They've become masters at pulling them out in the end. Six times, they've trailed in the fourth quarter before winning. They've overcome second-half deficits in all seven wins, gaining confidence as they've gone along. ''I think that's a mentality you have to have,'' Whisenhunt said. ''I've seen a lot of the really good teams in the league have that mentality. But the other side of it is, I wish we wouldn't always be trailing at half or having to go into those (fourth) quarters. ''But that's not something that's ever easy to do. That we've been able to do it against some pretty good football teams means that our guys have gotten some confidence. Especially when you're playing a good opponent on the road, those are the kinds of things that can help you and give you a chance.''
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