I have very little confidence that the Cincinnati Bengals will upset the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday and earn the franchise’s first playoff win in 25 years. I want them to—I desperately want them to—but I’m not getting my hopes up.
Roughly 15 minutes prior to the Bengals playoff matchup against the San Diego Chargers last year, I posted this tweet:
There are no curses.
— Justin Williams (@Williams_Justin) January 5, 2014
Then this happened. As the game ended, roughly three-and-a-half hours later, this was my response:
Sigh. — Justin Williams (@Williams_Justin) January 5, 2014
The Bengals have reached the postseason five times in the last six seasons, facing off against the New York Jets at home, the Houston Texans on the road in consecutive years, and the Chargers at home in 2014. Prior to that, in 2005, the best Bengals team of my lifetime faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round; Carson Palmer’s knee exploded on the second play from scrimmage. And in all six of those instances—for some unknown and forgotten reason—I was relatively optimistic entering the contest that the Bengals would end up victorious. Each time I got kicked in the teeth. I’ve learned my lesson.
A playoff win against the Colts would shock me, mainly because of past experiences, but also because the Bengals have a lot of things going against them. Aside from being on the road against a team that eviscerated them in October, they’re also taking on one of the best QBs in the league; if they couldn’t beat Mark Sanchez, T.J. Yates, or Matt Schaub, why should I believe they’ll beat Andrew Luck at home? The team has suffered a rash of key injuries this season, including Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Andre Smith, Vontaze Burfict, and the recently concussed A.J. Green, who may not be able to go on Sunday—that they made the playoffs at all without those guys for big chunks of the year is relatively impressive. And obviously, let us not forget how Andy Dalton generally fares in these situations.
Believe me—I’m glad the Bengals are in the playoffs. Ecstatic even. And I don’t think beating the Colts is outside the realm of possibility. I just don’t foresee it happening, because I have no evidence to the contrary. I hope I’m wrong.
But what is most interesting about this contest is something Grant Freking alluded to in his post on Tuesday: regardless of the outcome on Sunday, nothing will really change for the franchise moving forward. Win or lose, this is how the team will look for the foreseeable future. For most NFL franchises, losing four straight playoff games would result in some type of major shake-up (if one hadn’t been made already)—a new GM, a coach getting fired, a change at QB. But for the Bengals, none of those options are reasonably in play. Win or lose, the Brown family will continue to run the organization, Marvin Lewis will undoubtedly return for the final year of his contract (and likely get another two-year contract extension sometime this offseason), and Andy Dalton will be the starting QB come training camp. Sure, people can (and will, and have) argue each of those fates, but it won’t change any of them. Meet the 2015 Bengals, same as the 2014 Bengals.
Not to suggest that this predestination will have any negative impact on the team’s performance against the Colts, either. These are professional athletes and coaches—I truly doubt that Lewis or Dalton would somehow have more incentive to win on Sunday if they thought their jobs were at stake. (Honestly, in Dalton’s case, it would probably make him play worse.)
All of which leaves us with this: just win. Just freaking win. If the Bengals can pull out a victory, it will eject a quarter-century-sized monkey off the back of every team employee and fan. It will end the NFL’s longest current streak without a playoff win, and more importantly, end the incessant repeating of said stat. It will reward guys like Andrew Whitworth and Leon Hall and Robert Geathers who have lived through seemingly every iteration of disappointment suffered by this franchise since Marvin Lewis came aboard. It will give Lewis a chance to go into a January press conference wearing a smile and without the overwhelming urge to slice every media members’ head off with a samurai sword. It will give Andy Dalton—poor, sweet, mind-numbingly frustrating Andy Dalton—a much-needed sense of relief. It will give Mike Brown—whether you feel it’s deserved or not—the victory that has eluded him and his family for so, so long. It will give a deprived sports city a long-overdue moment of pride and celebration. Who cares if they go into New England the next weekend and get pounded by Tom Brady and the Patriots? A playoff win for the Bengals will give them everything.
And if they lose? Well, nothing will really be all that different. Things will largely remain the same. And it will be a royal pain in the ass.