“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
And sure, 2011 Cincinnati is not pre-Revolutionary France, but mere time and geography separated Charles Dickens from Paul Brown Stadium this Christmas Eve (and who would’ve thought it would be A Tale Of Two Cities that leant itself to our festive match up with the pesky Cardinals, rather than A Christmas Carol?) and little else.
The first half resembled the imperial and impenetrable ’09 game against the Bears; middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Nate Clements christened the births of their respective daughters this week with an interception each and—despite the unusual sight of two missed Mike Nugent field goals—the offense was efficient enough that at half time it appeared that the Bengals would hit a century of points before the Cardinals got a first down.
Dunlap, Peko, Johnson, and Fanene terrorized the unfortunate Cardinals QB John Skelton, and Jermaine Gresham made the most of the focus on AJ Green-Patrick Peterson match up to take the score to 10-0. Then came the highlight of the season, indeed, per various NFL commentators, highlight of the year: As Rome Simpson sped toward the endzone only a 6-foot-2 linebacker stood in his way. For mortal men, of course, that would be reason enough to turn around, go home, and claim there’d been some sort of mistake in the itinerary email, probably an issue with the old blackberry type thing, but for Rome “Shawn Johnson” Simpson, it was merely an opportunity to show off the elusive athletic ability that cuts so frustratingly with his inconsistency, leaping a good seven feet in the air, executing a full forward flip, and an (one finger brushing the floor aside) Olympian landing. Ah, the best of times, as with 11 minutes to go a solid 23-0 lead allowed foolish eyes to wander toward the Battle of New York to root on the Giants.
Foolish eyes. The worst of times. The classic Bengals self-implosion. Cedric Benson, who hadn’t lost a fumble in the first 13 games of the year suddenly found himself with Teflon hands, Larry Fitzgerald reminded everyone that the best receivers in the league are not all Johnsons, penalties, blown coverages, and somehow, somehow, the impervious lead was leakier than a Welshman’s vegetable patch. Somehow, somehow, somehow, with 90 second left on the clock, the Cardinals had the ball in the red zone, a humble seven points down and wide receiver Early Doucet completely open with the ball soaring towards him to take the game to overtime.
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epic of incredulity. Doucet fell over. The ball sailed over his head. There was nobody near him (presumably all 11 Bengal defensive players were hauling Larry Fitzgerald to the ground like stripy cheetahs with a be-dreadlocked wildebeest). There is no way I can recreate the, well, drama, I suppose of those last few minutes, though a small sample of the text messages I sent out—most without response—after the first Cardinal touchdown would include: “If there were more time left we’d screw this up,” “haha this is making me nervous,” “I’m sweating,” “#@$*!?,” “I’m crying,” “&*$%*#ing $#^&@(@^^#,” “I’m vomming,” and then I threw my cell phone into the fire and ran down the street screaming, weeping, and cheering. At least I think that’s what happened. I don’t really know. I’m pretty sure that four months ago the whole world knew that the Bengals were the worst team in the NFL. That we’d be lucky to win a game. That without any veteran play-makers our rookie offense would embarrass itself or worse. That even our limited defense was over-rated. That our five best players were gone. That we had no hope.
I know that here we stand. That as 2011 draws to a close, the Bengals play off hopes lie in their own hands, albeit needing a 2012 victory against a powerful and hungry Ravens team. That we stand at 9-6: nine more wins than were given credence four months previously. That we have more first, second and third round picks in the next few years that you can shake a stick at. That Andy Dalton is the first rookie QB since the merger to throw 20 touchdowns and win eight games. That along with AJ Green he forms half of arguably the best rookie QB-WR combination ever. The youngest team in the AFC. One of the hardest working.
What happens on New Year’s Day will happen. One way or the other. Yet here we are.
“It was the season of darkness. It is the spring of hope.”
Cardinals 16, Bengals 23