Chris Crocker received much of the blame 12 months ago.
After starting all 16 games for the first time in five seasons and being in the middle of the secondary amidst a surprise dash to the playoffs, it looked as if the Marshall product still had a few good years left in him.
Then, a disastrous day led to his short-lived demise.
Missed tackles and a failed interception by the strong safety were referred to as turning points in the Bengals’ 31-10 loss to the Houston Texans last January.
Three months later, the 10-year veteran was released.
The Bengals began the season with high hopes and seemed happy with their roster. However, they underachieved early and the secondary struggled mightily.
Through three games, the defense ranked 29th in yards allowed and 30th in points.
That week, Cincinnati brought back Crocker.
Heading into the deja vu playoff date at Houston, the Bengals are worlds better in both categories — Cincinnati’s D is currently sixth in yards allowed an eighth in points.
That’s a heck of a significant jump, and Crocker can’t be overlooked as at least one reason why. He’s been the glue of a secondary that also consists of steady cornerback Leon Hall and much-improved free safety Reggie Nelson. Cornerback Adam Jones might be playing better than ever.
A Geno Atkins-led front four has wreaked havoc on offensive lines all season long. The group, which also includes freakishly athletic defensive-end duo Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, racked up a franchise-best 51 sacks.
“It’s a good accomplishment. We’re all getting after it,” said Atkins, a Pro Bowler, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Houston has struggled to protect quarterback Matt Schaub recently, relenting 13 sacks in the past four games.
Cincinnati’s defense also has two interceptions for touchdowns in the last two games.
Crocker is tied with Nelson in picks with three.
Limited in practice on Wednesday after suffering a quad injury on Sunday, Crocker’s return is important to the Bengals’ success on Saturday (4:30 p.m., NBC).
He said he felt good earlier this week, so that’s good enough for me to make my prediction.
Redemption will be had for both Crocker and his teammates.
Snyder says: Bengals 24, Texans 13.
Vikings at Packers, 8 p.m.
The Packers haven’t proven they can stop powerful running back Adrian Peterson in two tries this season.
In fact, Peterson has torched Green Bay for 210 and 199 rushing yards in those contests.
It’s supposed to be cold (low of 17 degrees) and dry at Lambeau Field, but it’s difficult to envision frigid temperatures keeping Peterson from burning up the field.
Two questions: Can the Vikings hold Aaron Rodgers and his bevy of weapons at bay? Can Minnesota QB Christian Ponder play mistake-free?
Green Bay answers those favorably and overcomes a 150-plus-yard performance by Peterson with clutch play at home.
Snyder says: Packers 31, Vikings 24.
Colts at Ravens, 1 p.m.
A well-timed retirement announcement by future Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis will inspire the Ravens past the Colts, and perhaps even further.
Indianapolis, however, won’t go down without a valiant fight.
The Colts have played inspired football all season long for head coach Chuck Pagano, who missed most of the season while getting treated for leukemia. Rookie QB Andrew Luck hasn’t wowed everyone with outlandish numbers, but he’s already got a knack for putting together clutch drives to win games. Mentally, he’s head and shoulders above rookie standard.
Running back Ray Rice needs to get touches early and often. The Ray on the other side of the ball will be just fine, I suspect, despite an earlier-than-usual return from a torn triceps injury.
Lewis wants to go out on top, and he’ll surely have a great motivational speech assembled for this one.
The Ravens are 15-2 at M&T Bank Stadium over the last two seasons, including playoffs.
Snyder says: Ravens 30, Colts 17.
Seahawks at Redskins, 4:30
This might just be the best game of the wild card weekend.
Electrifying young quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson take center stage to put cappers on excellent rookie seasons.
The Redskins are the hotter team, with seven straight victories after a 3-6 start, and that bodes well. They’re also at home, which is hardly ever a bad thing.
Even though the Seahawks have to travel coast to coast, Seattle is favored.
Why is this?
All around, they’re the better team, that’s why.
They have better wins, including impressive defeats of the Patriots, Vikings and 49ers. Plus, they’re on a nice streak as well — five consecutive wins.
Going to the east coast and the fact that they’re 3-5 on the road are reasons that this game will be close, but not reasons the Seahawks will lose.
Snyder says: Seahawks 23, Redskins 21.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.