The Bengals will not be enjoying a first-round bye in the 2013 NFL playoffs. Other than that, things broke about as well as they possibly could for Cincinnati on Sunday. The Patriots falling to Buffalo at home—and in turn, opening the door to the Bengals for a #2 seed—was a pretty unlikely scenario. The Bengals had a shot at that a couple weeks ago and faltered. But beyond that, a win against the Ravens both guaranteed Cincy the #3 seed and (essentially) squelched Baltimore’s postseason hopes, and the Chargers late-game heroics have them traveling to the Jungle next Sunday while the Pittsburgh Steelers are at home on their couches. Even more interesting was how much the Chargers struggled—at home, in a must-win game—against the Chiefs B-team, while the Bengals similarly struggled—recording an infuriating number of boneheaded plays—and yet still beat the defending Super Bowl champs by three scores. It was an ugly win by the Bengals, in my opinion, and yet the final outcome wasn’t even close.
To the rankings…
All season, I (and many others that follow this team) have been harping/banging/fixating on the idea that Andy Dalton is the catalyst for the Bengals. If Dalton plays well, the team plays well. If he struggles, the team will often struggle. And while this remains true to a certain extent, it’s not a mutually exclusive scenario. Sunday proved that. Dalton struggled—sure, he had some nice moments, but he threw four freaking interceptions, one deserving of public shaming in Fountain Square—and yet the team triumphed with fairly minimal conflict. Because of the defense. This isn’t breaking news (the unit finished the season third overall in total defense and first in the AFC), but it’s the Bengals defense that made them AFC North champs and makes them a potentially dangerous playoff team. Even when Dalton struggles, or the offense in general falters, or special teams chokes and punts the ball 10 yards, or penalty yards stack up against Cincinnati, or a few things break in the other team’s favor, it has been the resilient, bend-don’t-break, next-man-up, Zimmer-led defense that has given the Bengals a chance in every game this season. Even in the Steelers matchup a few weeks ago, when Murphy’s Law tap-danced all over Cincinnati in the first quarter, the defense allowed the team to regroup enough to at least make things semi-interesting in the second half. And yesterday, despite four turnovers, 10 penalties for 76 yards, and a crappy punt, the defense still held the Ravens to only 222 total yards and 4-17 on 3rd and 4th down, forced three turnovers of their own (returning one for a score), and pounded Joe Flacco like the nerd in gym class. Dalton’s play will determine the ceiling for this Bengals team, but the defense is what keeps them from falling through the basement.
2. Andy Dalton
I’ll go more in-depth on Dalton later this week, mainly because he’s such a mysterious fig, not one that can be summed up in a few mere sentences or musings or quips. He’s a redheaded, mercurial enigma. But let’s take a moment to note two different things. The first is that he certainly has the ability to lead the team to big things this postseason, evidenced by a handful of impressive, clutch, and smart plays he makes just about every game, including in Week 17—big third down throws to Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu, big plays to AJ, getting the ball to Gio Bernard and Andrew Hawkins in space, making a few plays with his feet, his success in the redzone, etc. But then he does things like the interception he threw at the ONE FREAKING YARD LINE on FIRST-AND-FREAKING-10 with the Bengals leading by 10 and an almost assured chance to go up 17 in the fourth quarter. Considering the score, the situation, the decision making—everything—it had to be the dumbest, most ridiculous, idiotic, selfish thing Dalton has done all season, all of which was confirmed by the post-game revelation that HE FREAKING AUDIBLED TO IT.
Marvin Lewis said the first-and-1 on goal line was a check-down where Andy Dalton saw something.
— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) December 29, 2013
I don’t want to advocate violence—yes, this is a blog about professional football…why do you ask?—but I would have been totally supportive of James Harrison pulling the Patrick Swayze, rip-out-the-dude’s-jugular move from Road House on Dalton after that play. The only silver lining was that Dalton acknowledged his greed post-game, so maybe he won’t make a similarly stupid play again in the future. One can only hope.
3. Dre Kirkpatrick
The much-maligned (and targeted in pass defense) Dr. Dre scored some redemption yesterday, picking off two Joe Flacco passes in the fourth quarter. The second put the game out of reach when he returned it 21 yards for a touchdown to stretch the Bengals’ lead to 34-17—not to mention that it more than made up for the first one, a deep floater on fourth down that Dre should have simply batted to the turf, something he clearly didn’t even consider until the cameras caught a coach explaining it to him on the sidelines after the fact. (But c’mon, the guy was in the right spot and made a positive play, so it’s tough to complain.) A big game like this to close out the season can be huge for his confidence moving forward in his career.
4. Chris Crocker
The ageless wonder was responsible for the first of Flacco’s three fourth-quarter INTs, making a heads-up snag on a tipped ball that lead to a two-score lead for the Bengals. I don’t know what mythical fountain of youth Chris Crocker has discovered these past few seasons, but I hope it keeps flowing a little while longer.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
I try my best not to be a vindictive, petty person. Reveling in the failings, shortcomings, and misfortunes of others is never a becoming characteristic. We all get humbled before God. And yet, seeing the Steelers miss out on a playoff berth—under questionable circumstances, no less—was a perfect cap to an overall good day for the Bengals. We’ll see if the irony of the Bengals and their fans rooting for their opponent (the Chargers) comes back to haunt the men in stripes, but for now, it’s a beautiful thing knowing the Steelers are done for the season. Or at least it would be, if I were a vindictive, petty person.
The Most Honorable of Honorable Mentions
There aren’t enough good things that can be said about Andrew Whitworth and the contributions he’s had this season. Aside from being a constant, steady, and respected leader in the locker room, his mid-season transition from Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle to Pro Bowl-caliber left guard—a clearly selfless and downplayed move for the betterment of the club—really set the tone for the team down the stretch. As Pro Football Focus notes, Whitworth finished the season grading in the Top 15 in both position groups and has been somewhat of a revelation since bouncing inside to guard. He provides a versatility, toughness, and resiliency that the team seems to embody on the field, not to mention his overwhelmingly positive influence off of it. And one more time, just for good measure…
(via Cincy Jungle)