Bengals' Loss and Baseball Playoffs Prove the Value of Defense

For all the suspense in sports, outcomes much more often than not boil down to one principle. In baseball, defense wins, which mostly means pitching. In the other sports, defense wins, whatever th

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For all the suspense in sports, outcomes much more often than not boil down to one principle. In baseball, defense wins, which mostly means pitching. In the other sports, defense wins, whatever that means.

But where's the fun in predicting the future if we're slavishly loyal to these bromides? The answer arrived last weekend.

It seems one never learns it would be much more fun just to follow the bromides and be right more often, lest we should make foolish predictions such as those appearing last week in this column, which took the Boston Red Sox in a coin flip over the Chicago White Sox and the Atlanta Braves in a bit more than a flip over the Houston Astros.

By Oct. 9, the White Sox and Astros advanced in the baseball playoffs. So did the St. Louis Cardinals, who breezed past the San Diego Padres in an outcome no one could have missed.

Another development Oct. 9 further confirmed the bromides, for the Bengals with their unstoppable offense were stopped by Jacksonville, which entered with the NFL's third-rated defense. Jacksonville's 23-20 win exposed the Bengals' flaws at the moment it dropped them from the ranks of the unbeaten.

First, the Bengals still can't stop the run. Until they can, any team that can run and commits to it will beat them. Truth be told, the Chicago Bears could have beaten the Bengals three weeks ago if they committed to the run.

The Bears trailed 10-0 at halftime despite running for 86 yards in 14 carries to that point. Sadly for the Bears, they aren't known in recent years for their brilliant play calling, so their ideas about throwing in the rain with a rookie quarterback came as no surprise. The Bengals certainly weren't surprised. They made five interceptions in a 24-7 win.

The Jaguars are a lot smarter. Byron Leftwich threw only 24 passes, and the Jags ran all over the Bengals, 37 carries for 181 yards. And when the Bengals needed a defensive stop at the end of the game, the Jags tore off runs of 10 and 11 yards.

Second, the checklists are entertaining and everything, but Chad Johnson has a big target on his back and he put it there. Jacksonville corners Rashean Mathis and Terry Cousin came at Johnson in furious ready-aim-fire mode, holding him to 52 yards on five catches and laying him out pretty good a time or two.

One wonders how much more Johnson could accomplish if he didn't turn every game into the Super Bowl for his opponents. Anybody who comes at him so motivated and still doesn't do the job can't be too good. That can't be said about Jacksonville's corners, nor about a good many others. There remains much to be said for sneaking up on people.

Third, remember the winning strategy advocated by the once-great professional wrestler, Arn Anderson: Find the weakest or most injured part of the opponent's body and beat on it. Smart defenses will come at the middle of the Bengals' offensive line, weakened by injury to center Rich Braham. Jacksonville rushed through the middle to force Carson Palmer's fateful fumble with 1:16 left Sunday night, ending a drive that could have tied the game or won it for the stripes.

The Bengals entered the game with the NFL's third-ranked offense against Jacksonville's third-ranked defense. Good defense beats good offense. Again.

Along those lines, a wise man would have picked the Astros against Atlanta purely because of pitching, though, it would figure, the Astros didn't pitch especially well in the series. Instead, the Houston hitters came alive in a four-game series that lasted, in effect, five games because Game 4, one of the greatest ever, went 18 innings before the Astros won 7-6.

When Willy Taveras and Lance Berkman hit like they hit against Atlanta, the Astros will score. All their hitters hit against the Braves, and so did catcher Brad Ausmus, who pushed Game 4 into extra innings with a two-out homer in the ninth barely over the line in left-center field.

Even for a ballclub as beloved as the Astros in Houston these days, it's inevitable for someone to wear goat horns. The stat geeks and Houston talk shows often ridicule Ausmus as a banjo hitter. But his teammates love him, especially the pitchers, for reasons that can't be quantified.

If the other guys put a runner on third in a tight game, the Houston pitcher has no fear about chancing his nastiest breaking pitch into the dirt because he knows Ausmus will block it. That kind of confidence helps a pitcher bear down and strand opposing runners on third.

Thus is found one difference among the many between fantasy baseball and the real game. A real baseball team needs Ausmus' skills, while fantasy team owners won't touch him unless there's no one left. But if you own Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge or any other Houston pitcher on your fantasy team, then, in a real sense, you own Ausmus, too. Defense again.

Now if Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt and Lidge are on top of their game, the NLCS with the Cardinals could develop as one of the great playoff series of all time. The numbers say St. Louis is ever so slightly better from the mound, but no St. Louis starter brings postseason history to match Clemens and Pettitte.

The Cardinals' offense is also superior, featuring Albert Pujols, Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds, all of whom also play virtuous defense. Then again, good pitching beats good hitting.

It's still going to be the Cardinals. But how good is Houston's pitching this week?

In the American League, it's time to face reality. The White Sox already held off the Cleveland Indians, baseball's hottest club through the second half, before sweeping the defending champion Red Sox in the divisional series. The White Sox will prove it again against the Los Angeles Angels in the ALCS because they've got pitching.

Does one live and learn? Only the future knows.

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