The Bengals Host a Playoff Game at Last

Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase fulfilled the first step of their destinies by winning the AFC North. Can Cincinnati now win a playoff game for the first time in 30 years?

The NFL regular season is finally over, and what a long and thrilling one it’s been. The Bengals made the playoffs for the first time since 2015, as AFC North champs—we’ve known about the division title since beating Kansas City two weeks ago, but it’s worth savoring that thought for another moment.

Let us quickly dispose with this past Sunday’s scrimmage, a 21-16 loss to Cleveland that saw the Bengals go mainly with the JV team. They did play Ja’Marr Chase long enough for him to break the franchise record for receiving yards in a season—just as he said he’d do when he was drafted. Didn’t take him very long, did it? Ironically he caught the record pass not from his buddy Joe Burrow, who didn’t make the trip across Ohio, but from backup Brandon Allen.

Otherwise, the game served only to reinforce a handful of items you already suspected. Allen, even by backup quarterback standards, is pretty bad. Chris Evans, even by backup running back standards, is pretty good. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels is a true pro, ready and able when his number (at last) gets called. Marcus Bailey could be a damn good linebacker despite his bad knees. The Browns are a meh bunch, now and forever.

So the Bengals finish 10-7, which will never not be weird to write. They went 4-2 in the AFC North and have lost four straight and seven of the last eight to their hated northern rivals (which is why I still wanted the Bengals to pull this one out, meaningless as the result was). Their points scored/allowed differential was +84, the ninth-best in the NFL. They finished 17th overall in team DVOA, 18th on offense, 19th on defense, and eighth in special teams. Alas, a penalty-free game by the Green Bay Packers meant the Bengals did not finish with the fewest flags in the league, though they did come out on top in both net penalty calls and net penalty yards. And for the first time in a while, we won’t know about their draft status immediately upon season’s end.

All right, that game goes in the rearview. Let’s move on to what really matters: Saturday afternoon’s wild-card encounter with the Las Vegas Raiders, whom the Bengals beat in November, 32-13.

That final score was somewhat misleading. It was a tight affair until midway through the fourth quarter, when Cincinnati answered a quick Raiders TD drive with a punishing drive for six (Burrow to Chase, natch) when they needed it most. A couple of late turnovers and scores flattered the Bengals. As it turned out, the Bengals were the only AFC North team to defeat Vegas, a key element in their division championship.

Obviously, the Raiders are dangerous. Despite all the turmoil with Jon Gruden and Henry Ruggs and working with an interim coach no one knew anything about two months ago (Rich Bisaccia), here they are in the postseason. They’ve outslugged the Cowboys and the Chargers in recent weeks while beating the Broncos and the Browns in slopfests and winning a very important—and impressive—game at Indianapolis.

Raiders quarterback David Carr was overrated early in his career, when people were giving him MVP votes for merely being competent. Since then, however, he’s been underrated. With wideout Hunter Renfrow, running back Josh Jacobs, and a returned-to-health Darren Waller at tight end, they can move the ball in a variety of ways. Daniel Carlsson is an outstanding kicker with the pressure on. And as we’re well aware—and Sunday night’s game against the Chargers amplified this to extremes—the Vegas pass rush, led by Maxx Crosby, can ruin your day. And that of course plays squarely into Cincinnati’s weakness in protecting Burrow.

Then again, the Raiders are one of the few playoffs teams with a lower DVOA than the Bengals (Tennessee, your No. 1 seed in the AFC, is another). They struggle to cover receivers on the perimeter and tight ends in the middle (25th in DVOA vs, TEs), and though their run defense has improved since Cincinnati gashed them for 159 yards back in November, it still isn’t a strength. That won’t be helped with defensive tackle Darius Philon missing the game with an injury suffered against the Chargers. And, like the Bengals, the Raiders have some youth and weaknesses on their offensive line, which Cincinnati hopes to be able to exploit.

Will the Bengals attack the same way as they did out in Vegas? In that game Cincinnati pounded away on the ground until “the dam broke,” as the coaching staff predicted it would. Fearful of Crosby and the Raiders pass rush, which produced a strip sack on the game’s first play, Burrow passed just 29 times for just 148 yards, his low total on the season. And remember that Riley Reiff, Cincinnati’s starting right tackle, was healthy for that game; he’s now out for the season, replaced by Isaiah Prince. The Bengals have been highly successful through the air of late, but they’ll have to find a balance in the attack. Scoring early will be critical—playing from behind will expose Burrow to the sharp teeth of the Raiders’ pass rush.

In many ways, of course, the opponent and game plan are mere details. This is a battle with ourselves, with 30 years of frustration, angst, and disbelief as the Bengals found ever more incredible ways to not win a postseason game. This is about our identity as a hapless, losing franchise, one occasionally good enough to make the postseason but for three decades and counting now not good enough to do anything once there. It’s about forever being relegated to the Saturday afternoon opener unless the opponent is especially popular. It’s about whether it’s truly a new “dey” at Paul Brown Stadium.

Mainly, this game is about whether Joe Burrow truly is the Promised One to lead us out of this hellish desert to the land of milk and honey. So far, other than the hiccup with the knee injury, he’s fulfilled all his promise as the most important player to come to the Bengals in recent memory, if not ever.

Winning a playoff game would take things to the next level. It’s what is needed to lift the dark cloud, and it would truly indicate that with Burrow in command all things are possible. I think I speak for the entirety of Bengals Nation when I beseech: Please, Joe, make it happen at last.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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