By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Before the NFL season kicked off, I wrote these words in this space and spoke them on ESPN.

If I had any guts, I'd pick the Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC.

The Bengals, I remind you, were not the trendy dark horse pick. Arizona and Detroit were. But if you could see past the "Bungles" stereotype, then you saw a team on the verge. You saw Carson Palmer, Chad and Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and a Marvin Lewis defense. You saw . . .

. . . me wimp out.

After all, it took every ounce of John Wayne in me -- all two -- just to pick against Bill Belichick's New England Patriots. My rationale was the old Jerry Jones quote about why his '92-'93 Cowboys failed to threepeat: "There's a reason no one's ever won three of these in a row."

Stuff happens. The injury gods waved their tragic wand over the two-time champion Patriots. Poof, up in smoke.
(I know Pats fans, your team will still get into the playoffs by winning the NFL's worst division. But please don't give me any of your wishful "look-out-for-the-Patriots" thinking. Look out below. Teams with minus-seven turnover ratios don't last long in January.)

So in early September, I picked the Indianapolis Colts by default. I said they would win the Super Bowl in spite of their defense -- which has turned out to be much better than I thought.

Then again, so has Cincinnati's offense.

And defense.

And special teams.

And here I sit on Dec. 8, wrestling again with my inner wimp.

My better judgment says, "Have some guts and listen to your gut. Switch your pick. Go with the Bengals."

My inner wimp says, "They haven't beaten anybody but a Steelers team that's starting to look pretty plastic. The Colts left the Steelers psychologically dead the previous Monday night in Indianapolis. That wasn't the same Pittsburgh team that ran over the Bengals in Cincinnati on Oct. 23."

Yet I hear Chad Johnson tell Dan Patrick on his ESPN Radio show that he guarantees the Bengals will score 40 and beat the Colts in Indianapolis in the AFC championship game. And my better judgment says, "This kid isn't just flapping his gums to promote himself. He honestly believes what he's saying. And he just might be right."

My inner wimp counters, "These aren't exactly the NFL's version of the White Sox. These guys are a year away."

Still, I'll go this far: The Cincinnati Bengals have emerged as the biggest threat to Indy's highly possible 19-0 season.

Not the Jaguars in Jacksonville this Sunday.

Not San Diego in Indianapolis on Dec. 18.

Not even the Seahawks in Seattle on Christmas Eve.
(Chill, Seahawks fans. Your team still hasn't beaten -- or played -- an AFC big boy. You needed Michael Vick's getting banged up, Drew Bledsoe's throwing an incomprehensibly awful late interception and Jay "I've Lost My" Feely's missing three game-winning field goals to survive Atlanta, Dallas and the New York Giants, respectively. And please don't give me 42-0 over what's left of the Eagles in Philadelphia. Remember, you still have to wonder about the mental toughness of your quarterback, your running back and your head coach.)

No, the biggest threat to Indy's perfect season won't even be the predictable AFC big boys -- Denver, Jacksonville or San Diego in a divisional playoff game on Jan. 14 or 15. The biggest threat will come in the AFC title game on Jan. 22 from the NFL's No. 1 offense, from the defense that easily leads the league in interceptions and from the team that is turning pro football upside down with its plus-24 turnover ratio.

Now arriving on inside track No. 13: The 9-3 Bengals.

Look out above.

"We're going to score 40 a game from here on out," Johnson told Patrick.

That includes the AFC title game in Indy's RCA Dome -- which could stand for Red Cincinnati Alert. The Bengals are the only team with enough firepower to win a 45-40 shootout at Peyton's Place.

As an AFC defensive coach who has game planned against this year's Colts and Bengals told me Wednesday: "The Colts aren't afraid of anyone but the Bengals. They beat the Bengals 45-37 in a game of can-you-top-this in Cincinnati three weeks ago."

Chad Johnson
Chad Johnson, the anti-TO and the key to the playoffs.

But the Bengals now have the NFL's second-best quarterback to Peyton Manning, and Carson Palmer gets better by the throw. His offense went into the Pittsburgh last Sunday and didn't have a single turnover. The defense has been creating turnovers like crazy all season.

"And they have so many more weapons than Chad Johnson. Houshmandzadeh runs the best routes because he's their possession guy. Chris Henry can really run, so he can get behind you. And you have to honor Rudi Johnson because he'll bang away at you.

"But that team feeds off Chad Johnson getting behind people."

I've closely watched Johnson before and during several live TV interviews. He isn't just another shock jock blurting whatever flies into his mind just to attract national attention while he's stuck in Cincinnati. He's quiet and pensive before the red light goes on. He's premeditated and calculated. He's carefully careless.

Now, he's not just guaranteeing he will beat the Colts. He's saying we. He knows he now has the team to back up his boasts. He also knows his team responds well to his highly publicized motivation: He keeps writing checks his teammates must cash.

In that way, Johnson is the anti-T.O.

Johnson appears to be far more interested in winning than promoting himself. Terrell Owens cares only about beating his own chest and drum; winning is nice, but not necessary for him. Owens' touchdown celebrations are more about, "Look at me." Johnson's are good-natured skits designed to please and reward the crowd and his teammates after a score. Johnson's are more about, "Look at us."

Johnson's bits are sometimes self-deprecating and often hilarious -- especially when he nailed the Riverdance, a difficult Irish jig you won't see in the clubs. His teammates appear to thrive on the national buzz Johnson has created by calling out cornerbacks scheduled to cover him each week. He has put this team back on the national map. Now, the Bengals are playing as though they belong there.

I give Johnson high marks for leadership and entertainment. I give him only one demerit for volunteering on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" that he and Owens are close friends and that they talk often. Careful, Chad. Don't let his "Me"-O. rub off on you.

Remember how blessed you are to be catching passes from a young franchise quarterback such as Palmer, who has thrown 27 touchdown passes to just six interceptions. The AFC coach said: "Carson has a better arm than Peyton. He doesn't have Peyton's command of the offense, but he's getting there. That's why they've been letting Carson run more no-huddle lately -- they're trusting him to check off to the run or pass, depending on what he sees."

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Palmer reminds me in stature and pocket presence of Troy Aikman. Yet Palmer throws a little better deep ball, he's a little more mobile and he has a little more California cool in him than Aikman. Both grew up in the L.A. area. But Aikman could come unglued if the stars around him weren't perfectly aligned.

Palmer is capable of playing a no-turnover game at the RCA Dome in late January.

Yet Wednesday, I was haunted by an NFL Films special I saw on ESPN featuring Aikman's '92 Cowboys. That team was supposed to be at least a year away. That team stunned the 49ers at Candlestick Park and crushed Buffalo in the Super Bowl.

Better judgment: "You wrote a book about that Cowboys team, and these Bengals are starting to have that same don't-know-their-own-strength feel."

Inner wimp: "Please. Those Cowboys had a better receiver in Michael Irvin and a much better running back in Emmitt Smith. They had a more star-studded offensive line, and these Bengals don't have anyone who can rush the passer the way Charles Haley did. You're looking at a rookie pass-rusher in David Pollack and a rookie middle linebacker in Odell Thurman. These Bengals can't shut people down the way those Cowboys could. These Bengals are ranked 28th in defense! Case closed."

Better judgment: "Yes, but what's the only stat in pro football you care about?"

Inner wimp: "Turnover ratio. It almost always tells the story."

Better judgment: "Right. The bottom 13 in turnover ratio right now almost certainly won't make the playoffs -- except for New England at minus-seven. The Cincinnati Bengals are plus-24! The next-best teams are the Broncos and Giants at plus-16! That's unheard of."

Yes, the Bengals are riding a rare, contagious, ball-hawking mojo.

The AFC coach said: "They're just as capable as Indianapolis of getting ahead of you and making you force passes. But the Bengals secondary is a little more opportunistic."

Deltha O'Neal leads the NFL with eight interceptions. Rookie Thurman has five games to go, and leads the team with 96 tackles and will probably win the defensive rookie of the year award.

Yes, something is going on with these Bengals. Something magically memorable?

Better judgment: "Be a man. Predict the Bengals will be the first and last team to beat this year's Colts, on Jan. 22."

Inner wimp: "I have a headache. I'll finish this column later."

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.