For most of Sunday afternoon, the Bengals seemed set to charge past the rest of the AFC Wild Card race like roadrunner past a booby-trapped anvil, or, you know, like Rey Maualuga charging past an opposition running back.
When Cincinnati’s thrilling opening drive against the Dallas Cowboys—trick plays, reverses, the explosive arrival of Marvin Jones —culminated in a touchdown celebration between QB Andy Dalton and WR Andrew “Baby Hawk” Hawkins that awkwardly brought to mind the final moments of Dirty Dancing, the Bengals four-game winning streak looked set to be extended in exhilarating fashion.
With the Ravens and Steelers losing and the Colts looking wobbly against Tennessee, it seemed as though the moon was in the Seventh House and Jupiter was actually aligning with Mars. It was not to be. Replacement kicker Josh Brown was called upon too often, as the Bengals offense moved at will on the Cowboys, until they hit the red zone. We have a saying in England—“catches win matches”—that obviously doesn’t work here because when I describe a game as a match my girlfriend briskly tells me, “This isn’t Quidditch.” That said, the saying could not have been more apt on either side of the ball. Time after time, the Bengals cadre of exciting young pass-catchers failed to live up to the second half of that description. Twice Hawkins dropped third-down completions. Tight end Jermain Gresham, who made a spectacular one-handed grab early on, could not repeat the feat in the end zone. Even AJ Green dropped a sure-fire TD on third down.
It wasn’t just the offense: the Bengals defense dropped three simple interceptions that would have sealed the game, two by ex-Cowboy Terrence Newman, and one by Nate Clements. Linebacker Maualuga and safety Chris Crocker got their hands on two more.
It should be admitted, it wasn’t the prettiest of games; at one point the Cowboys were penalized after Rob Ryan ran onto the field to say something very offensive to right tackle Andre Smith (and to any lip-readers watching Fox). The source of their disagreement was never established, though given the respective girth of the two men, it seems likely that Dre might have accidentally eaten the world’s last remaining Twinkie. Certainly you wouldn’t want to be stuck between the two of them when the all-you-can-eat buffet started at Golden Corral.
The comedy of errors continued—the Bengals scored a TD that was disallowed because rookie Marvin Jones ran out of bounds before catching the ball; then the penalty was offset because the Cowboys had too many men on the field; then the Bengals “caught” the dropsies and never recovered, knowing the final nail was in the coffin when Reggie Nelson slammed Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant into dropping a third down catch. Bryant is a total nightmare, both for opposition defenses and Dallas local law enforcement, so a dirty hit would have been understandable, but the penalty was totally unjustified—the tackle was clean and textbook. Sadly it also burned the final Bengals timeout, which meant that the final minutes were played out knowing we couldn’t stop the clock. At least the timeouts had been used on importantly vague-sounding things like “personnel changes,” so that’s ok.
If there’s one thing you can guarantee about a Marvin Lewis Bengals team, it is that should they have a lead between seven and 14 points in the third quarter, they will clam up like a child scared of the dark, cross their fingers, close their eyes and hope the referee just blows his whistle to say the game is over and they’ve won.
So frankly, when the Cowboys scored 10 unanswered points in the final seven minutes, and when the Titans found a way to hand the game back to the Colts, the only real surprise was that the Steelers actually lost.
Final Score: Cowboys 20 Bengals 19.
Man Of The Match: Josh Brown. Ridiculous that he was called upon so often, but was perfect when he was.