I felt oddly confident about Cincinnati’s Week 3 chances in Green Bay. For one thing, there was no way they could be as awful offensively as they had been over the first two weeks, especially after riding Ken Zampese out of town on a rail. Bill Lazor would surely be an upgrade. And the Bengals play very well against NFC opponents, who don’t have the extensive files on team personnel, Andy Dalton in particular, possessed by more frequent opponents. Oft flummoxed by the likes of Cleveland and Houston, Dalton by contrast was 15-6-2 against NFC opponents (Cincy also won a game against the 49ers with AJ McCarron at quarterback) before the trip to Wisconsin.
But that isn’t why it was so acutely painful after the Bengals flushed away a two-touchdown lead at Lambeau and lost in overtime on Sunday. It should not have been nearly so crushing, given it was just a regular season encounter, and early in the season to boot.
But the circumstances, winless and reeling and desperate to save the season, made the game a must-win. It was, for all intents and purposes, a playoff game. And Cincinnati played like it was, right down to the poor post-halftime play, the conservative approach that backfired, and of course, the rip-hearts-from-fans’-chests defeat. The only unusual aspect was the weather. The frozen tundra was more like the African savannah, with gameday temperatures at 90 degrees, the warmest in Lambeau Field history.
Alas, Cincinnati losing in big games is as inexorable as climate change. So in order to ease the suffering of yet another agonizing loss, let’s hold it at arm’s distance and attempt to quantify the pain. How did this game stack up to other big losses in team history?
Let’s stipulate at the top that nothing approaches the two Super Bowl losses at the hands of He Who Must Not Be Named. In any rendering of agony, those two nightmares far outdistance the others. Since the Bengals have—incredibly—only advanced one solitary time in fifty years to a next playoff round without actually making the Super Bowl (1990), that leaves precious few games of huge consequence to stew over in the proceeding days/months/years/generations.
That’s what we call in the writing biz a “silver lining.”
The Carson Palmer Knee Game is indisputably third-worst, not least because I schlepped all the way from Atlanta to see the game in person, and of course the fact that a turncoat playing for the team’s arch-enemy injured the star quarterback.
With a nod of the head toward the Bo Jackson Curse Game, the Freeman McNeil Game, the Stokley Tipped Pass Game, the Collective Works of Brad St. Louis and Shayne Graham, and the Astrodome Atrocity (in 1977, the Bengals memorably beat Pittsburgh in the penultimate game of the season, thus needing only to beat Houston to win the old AFC Central. Naturally, they lost 21-16 inside the Eighth Wonder of the World, and the Steelers took the division while the Bengals went home), let’s keep this accounting of horrors to the Andy Dalton Era.
Here’s my Dirty Dozen:
1. Insane In The Membrane (2015 wild-card game vs. Pittsburgh)
We know all the details of this anesthesia-free root canal.
2. Andy Implodes (2013 wild-card game vs. San Diego)
The Bengals were 8-0 at home, scoring 35 points per game, but in the playoffs Dalton had four egregious turnovers and got rolled in the Jungle—on the 25th anniversary of the 1988 run to (almost) glory—by a meh Chargers squad.
3. Brocked (2015 week 15 vs. Denver)
Less “celebrated,” perhaps, but a crusher. Cincy blew a two-touchdown lead on the road and lost in OT (sound familiar?), thanks to several pinpoint throws by pigskin Lurch Brock Osweiler. Instead of a one-seed and a bye, the team had to go that dreaded wild-card route instead (see #1 on this list). Denver went on to win the Super Bowl, thanks mostly to that home-field edge.
4. One for The Thumb (2015 week 14 vs. Pittsburgh)
We use Andy D. as a punching bag, but there’s no doubt he was superb in ’15, until he compounded a bad pick (which was rare that season) with an ill-advised tackle that broke his thumb and ended his season. In a flash, Cincy’s best team since ’88 essentially lost any realistic Super Bowl hopes.
5. Red BB Gun (2012 wild-card game vs. Houston)
The Bengals were better than Houston in the second wild-card encounter deep in the heart of Texas, but were too godawful on offense to capitalize. The picture of Dalton missing a streaking A.J. Green in the waning moments is burned into our collective retinae.
6. Double Overtime Defeats (2013 week 9/10 vs Miami/Baltimore)
In back-to-back weeks, the Bengals not only lost two excruciating overtime games on the road—one on a safety, one after a Hail Mary to Green tied the game—but also lost Geno Atkins to a torn knee ligament. That was a tough fortnight.
7. Lame-Beau Field (2017 week 3 vs. Green Bay)
Recency bias? Perhaps. But when all hope is yanked away in September, the pain lingers.
8. T.J. Who??? (2011 week 14 vs. Houston)
Before the playoff losses and the offensive catastrophes, Houston came to rising Cincy with unknown rookie T.J. Yates at the helm, due to injury. Sure as the outgoing tide leaves a stench, Yates led a last-second drive to pull the upset, and foreshadow many bad matchups with Houston to come.
9. Romo No Mo Momentum (2012 week 14 vs. Dallas)
After a slow start, the ’12 Bengals ripped off 7 of 8 to close the season. The lone loss came in quintessential style—dominate, don’t put the game away, let the enemy QB (Tony Romo, in this case) drive the field for the winning points at the death. Bonus pain: former Cowboy Terence Newman dropped a sure pick that would have sealed the game. Win this one, and the team would have nabbed a home playoff game instead of traveling to Houston (see #5). Typical.
10. Watt Just Happened? (2011 wild-card game vs. Houston)The original sin of the Lewis/Dalton Playoff-Fail Era. Houston’s run game demolished Cincy, but the turning point was rookie J.J. Watt’s astonishing pick-six of a screen pass. Great players make great plays in big games. Unless they wear stripes.
11. “On To Cincinnati” (2014 Week 5 vs. New England)
Cincy was 3-0, and the Pats had just been pantsed by the Chiefs on Monday Night Football. Of course, Brady & Co. killed the Bengals to the tune of 43-17, but the worst part was the manifest destiny behind it: Did anyone doubt Belichick would play chess to Marv’s checkers? And of course, the mulish phrase Belicheck used to parry the press after the preceding Kansas City loss—“We’re on to Cincinnati”—has already reached legendary status.
12. Burkhead At Wideout…or Little At Wideout…or Hamilton At Wideout (2014 wild-card game vs. Indianapolis)
It was a playoff game, so it has to be here, but the Bengals were so shorthanded for this one (running back Rex Burkhead had to play slot receiver, joining the hallowed likes of Greg Little and Cobi Hamilton) that it was fait accompli another loss was coming. Which took some of the edge off.
Your mileage may vary. I’m sure y’all have a list of your own, or quibbles with this one? Let me hear all about it—we’re all in this together, and on this particular subject, we’re all experts, unfortunately.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can send him your list of worst losses on Twitter at @robwein.