What is destiny?

Brad St. Louis is my least favorite Cincinnati Bengal of all time. St. Louis served as the team’s long snapper from 2000-2009. The latter half of his career was marred by crucial mistakes, all microcosms of the bigger, more endemic issues surrounding the Bengals’ franchise ever since the “Stanley Wilson incident.” St. Louis was frustrating, infuriating, heart breaking, seemingly cursed, and destined for disappointment—just like the team.

In the 2005 AFC Wild Card game against the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers (the team’s first playoff game and winning season since 1990, which had already been scarred by the infamous Carson Palmer injury), a bad snap by St. Louis on a field goal attempt led to a Steelers drive that resulted in Pittsburgh taking a 21-17 lead. The Bengals didn’t score again. In 2006, the Bengals had a record of 8-6 going into Week 16 against Denver. They were on the cusp of a second consecutive playoff berth, and on the verge of knotting the score with the Broncos after a late touchdown. Instead, St. Louis spoiled another snap, this time on the game-tying extra point attempt, blowing the comeback. The Bengals then lost again in Week 17 to the Steelers on the first play of overtime, knocking them out of the playoffs.

I could sink deeper into the rabbit hole of terrible Bengals moments, but I’ll spare you the horror of reliving all those terrible moments. In the end, these stories prove simply that the Cincinnati Bengals have been cursed, destined to fail over the past two-plus decades, a fact that is unclear only to non-football fans or those subscribing to so-called “rational” thinking. Even during the rare instances when Bengals football wasn’t overwhelmingly putrid (’05, ’09), things always found a way of ending on the sourest and most disappointing of notes. This is why Sunday’s potentially playoff securing game against the division rival Baltimore Ravens is so important, beyond whether or not the team reaches the playoffs. This game could very well determine the future of the Bengal Curse.

The catchphrase of the week is that the Bengals “control their own destiny”…which is a little like saying “free with purchase of,” but you get the idea. Win and you’re in the playoffs. Sure, you could lose and still sneak into the postseason if the cards fall in all the right ways, but things get a heck of a lot easier if the Bengals are victorious. But as ridiculous as this might sound, whether or not the boys in orange and black secure a third playoff berth in 21 years is not the most significant outcome on Sunday. What matters more is how they do or do not secure that playoff berth.

Beating the Ravens on Sunday would be bliss. Putting away a divisional foe to catapult into the last Wild Card game against a very beatable Houston team would be the perfect way to cap off a regular season that was predicted to be downright awful. And don’t get me wrong, I’d be more than happy to grab that last playoff spot after a loss if the scenarios still play out in Cincinnati’s favor. I wouldn’t even be terribly devastated if the Bengals get blown-out by 21 while all the other playoff hopeful teams come away victorious, knocking Marvin Lewis & Co. out of contention. But what I do not want to watch happen is for the team to lose in some devastating fashion, on a last-ditch Hail Mary, crippling late-game turnover, or Brad St. Louis-esque botched special teams play. All that would do is prove that the curse is still alive and well. A win means this team deserves the postseason. A big loss means they are probably a year or two away. A lose-but-still-get-in scenario means this squad truly does have a little good fortune on its side. The alternative is what scares me. It would signal that this franchise remains destined for failure, haunted by over 20 years of futility—that is what’s at stake this weekend.

You’re no doubt fully aware of how this team (my team, our team) is distinct from those in recent years: new offensive coordinator, standout rookies at QB and receiver, and the absence of big names on defense and divas on offense. We’ve been lucky at times, whether it’s A.J. Green breaking loose for a touchdown on a quick snap in Week 1 or a wide-open opposing wideout tripping over his own feet in the endzone as a pass attempt falls harmlessly to the turf in Week 16. We’ve been efficient at times, whether it’s a defense ranked fifth against the run or a special teams unit ranked first on kickoff coverage. We’ve even been downright good at times, coming back from double-digit second half deficits on three different occasions. And yet, it could all be irrelevant. A season’s worth of moments will be summed up in this weekend’s contest. Fate hangs in the balance.

To the fans, the curse is all too real. From the wasted investments in David Klingler and Akili Smith, to the crushing injuries of Carson Palmer, Ki-Jana Carter, and David Pollack, to the tragic circumstance of Chris Henry, it’s been a tough life in Bengaldom. This season, anticipated to be historically bad, has already served to eradicate some of those demons with a winning record and impressive group of youngsters. But a truer test lies in this Sunday’s matchup. Will the Bengals—one way or another—determine their future, or will some higher power intercede?

Destiny is on the line. Who controls it remains to be seen.

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