The Bengals Are Ending the Season on an Upswing, As Usual

Two straight wins have the draft experts disappointed but the real fans excited. Wait until next year, once again.

Tt’s a tradition as old, seemingly, as the Pyramids. After several long months of only occasionally resembling a competent football franchise, the Bengals spend the holiday season at last putting together four quarters of solid play, winning December games and pumping the fan base full of that most dreaded emotion: hope. “Next year will be something,” we all cry. “Look how we finished this season!”

 

As a longtime Bengals fanatic, I’ve been down this road many, many times before. I’ve lived the horror show years of the Lost Decade up through the Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton eras, and I recall last season’s near-miss in Week 16 and a resounding defeat of Cleveland in the finale that got the optimism train a’churning. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t get too fired up over these back-to-back wins, as welcome as they were—especially in the Zac Taylor household. Even a win over the Ravens this weekend, with the ancillary benefit of denying Baltimore a playoff berth (as we did in 2017, thus saving Marvin Lewis’ job for one more desultory year), wouldn’t change my thinking about what it might mean for future editions of Cincinnati ballclubs.

Still, don’t count me among those who decried the Bengals’ 37-31 win over Houston on Sunday. I know, I know: But the draft pick! The win dropped Cincinnati to the fifth slot, probably costing them a chance at Penei Sewell, this year’s uber-prospect offensive tackle.

To that I say A) actually winning games is the reason everyone pays attention to these Sunday afternoon rumbles, and that’s happened far too infrequently to shrug off the Houston victory; b) there will be plenty of good players who can help the team available regardless of where Cincinnati picks in April, including other offensive linemen; and c) the only time you should really care about draft pick jockeying is when there’s a potential franchise quarterback available, like last season. Beating Miami in the aforementioned near-miss penultimate game last season would have been foolhardy. But Cincinnati has secured the franchise quarterback already; now it’s just a matter of filling in the roster around him, and in that department there are multiple ways of skinning the cat. (Who came up with that saying? Was cat skinning once that common?)

So I was plenty happy with the win, despite its irrelevancy in the big picture—save for the part about helping the Dolphins up to the No. 3 draft slot (yuck). Specifically, it was the way the Bengals won. A letdown after the emotional Steelers victory was practically guaranteed just six days later. Throw in the sheer volume of backups in the Cincinnati lineup and the usual ineptitude that sweeps over the team when playing in Houston, and a return to their losing ways seemed certain. Instead, the Bengals won their first road game under Taylor with an explosive offensive led by Brandon Allen, of all people, who deserves serious consideration for offensive player of the week.

Allen becomes the third quarterback to win a game for Cincinnati this season, which is mind-blowing given the overall context of the year. That Taylor was able to elicit this performance from Allen was eye-opening; that it came one week after winning a contest using Ryan Finley in a much different read-option-heavy game plan was truly remarkable. Taylor can clearly design an offensive scheme, and his overall command of the team seems unquestioned after the midseason question marks. He was already highly unlikely to be fired, given Mike Brown’s history and Joe Burrow’s glowing recommendation. But in terms of actual sideline action, Taylor just turned in by far his most impressive six days since his hiring.

The crisp short dropbacks and passing attack designed mainly to take advantage of Houston’s linebackers (and their tendency to turn and run, leaving the screen game wide open) frustrated the Texans badly, to the point that J.J. Watt went nuclear in his postgame press conference. Allen also showed some excellent touch on longer passes in the second half, especially on the slot fade to Tee Higgins, who made a brilliant TD catch of a perfectly placed ball.

It wasn’t all Allen, however. The “Run the Ball!” crowd (shout out to my friend Mike Dunn, who’s been bellowing that from his PBS end zone seat for many years) was vindicated the past two weeks, as Cincinnati put up 321 yards on the ground. That’s without Joe Mixon or Jonah Williams, it should be noted.

And at long last the defense made a game-closing play. Sam Hubbard’s snagging of Deshaun Watson’s passing hand with his facemask resulted in a strip sack that Margus Hunt collected in the air, for once stopping an opposing offense from retaking a late lead. Imagine how differently the season might feel if the D had stepped up against the Colts, Browns, or Eagles….

Meanwhile, Carl Lawson had another strong game rushing the passer, widening his lead in the “Who gets the extension, Lawson or WJ3?” race that’s been an intriguing subplot to the season. Of course, keeping both would be preferable, but that may not be possible. If not, the blow to the pass rush that losing Lawson would mean seems worse than the loss to the coverage capability should Jackson walk—at this moment anyway.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream on Sunday. Despite the loss, the Texans averaged an incredible 9.6 yards per play, practically getting a first down on every snap! They also scored 31 points on just 51 snaps (Cincinnati had 37 on 71, by contrast). The tackling was atrocious, allowing Houston running back David Johnson to reawaken and bounce off multiple Bengals on seemingly every touch.

Needless to say, that must be corrected if there is to be any chance at stopping Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on Sunday. Much of Cincinnati’s offseason was spent with slowing Jackson in mind, from the acquisition of run-stoppers like Vonn Bell, Josh Bynes, and DJ Reader to the drafting of more athletic linebackers to the hours defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo spent tinkering in the lab. In the first meeting earlier this season, Anarumo’s creative corner blitz packages did a fine job in slowing Lamar, who in fairness was a bit gimpy that afternoon. Baltimore will assuredly counterattack and has an enormous amount at stake in the game. How Anarumo counters the counter and whether Cincinnati can match their enemy’s intensity will be fascinating to watch.

Certainly, the good news is there is reason to tune in. It sure seemed as though this final game would be a “must avoid” affair a few weeks back, but circumstances have changed quickly, as they so often do in the NFL. Incredibly, the Bengals have won their last 12 (12!) home finales when entering the game with a losing record (and 17 of 18). With that in mind, the double-digits the Ravens are favored by seems like a sucker bet.

I know I’ll be rooting for a repeat of the John Harbaugh face, the one he makes when he realizes the Bengals have knocked him out of postseason contention for the second time in four years. I’ll worry about how that impacts Cincinnati’s draft position after it’s over.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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