This. Is. It.
Sure, the Bengals claiming the AFC North crown under the Terrible Towel-tinged lights of Heinz Field—and subsequently initiating a Bret Michaels internet meme across the Queen City—would’ve been a marvelous end to what’s been a bizarre regular season. And, of course, a home playoff game would’ve been nice—especially since the Bengals are 0-8 in postseason games away from Cincinnati.
But, here we are. The Bengals face a beatable Colts team Sunday afternoon in Circle City. Everyone knows the key number here is five, the number of losses in the same amount of playoff contests under Marvin Lewis—the last three featuring wretched performances by Andrew Gregory Dalton—with the last postseason triumph for the franchise taking place on January 6, 1991, the longest stretch without a playoff victory in the NFL.
As soon as Denver clinched the No. 2 seed Sunday afternoon, Bengals-Steelers took on an anti-climactic feel. With the division on the line, of course the game meant something, but how much did it really mean? The Bengals absolutely sold out the previous week on Monday Night Football against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, winning the battle for both their playoff lives and some primetime respect in what was the most meaningful victory in the history of Paul Brown Stadium.
And who knows whether facing the Ravens at home or the Colts on the road would’ve been better for the Bengals. Could Cincinnati really have beaten Baltimore three times in one season? Maybe so, but the Bengals greatest offensive strength (running the ball) matches the Ravens’ greatest defensive strength (stopping the run). The Colts employ Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Vontae Davis, and the Boomstick, but range from ordinary to simply solid everywhere else. Indianapolis, like Cincinnati, has struggled against quality competition in 2014, winning just two of its six games against playoff teams (one of those being a butt-whipping of the Bengals).
So, here are handful of things for Bengals fans to keep in mind as they curse the memory of Johnny Unitas on Sunday:
*Health is a monstrous key. We know the Bengals possess two evident limitations with their lack of depth and the fact that Dalton is their franchise quarterback. The flu bug infiltrated the team last week, but everyone who missed time with illness minus Terence Newman—who didn’t look right at all against the Broncos—suited up Sunday night to play the Steelers.
It turns out, A.J. Green could indeed raise his right arm after that nasty hit against Denver, but Green (along with special teams ace Cedric Peerman) was knocked from the game with a concussion. Quite obviously, the Bengals’ chances Sunday take a sustainable hit if Green can’t go. (An injured Green didn’t play in Cincinnati’s 27-0 loss to the Colts on October 19.) If you’re a Bengals fan, be thankful the team isn’t playing Saturday, which would remove a day for Green to get through concussion protocol.
*I think Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther held back a little bit vs. the Steelers. There are no secrets between division opponents, so the Bengals could have lined up in the A-11 on offense and a 3-3-5 on defense, and chances are the Steelers would’ve been ready for it.
Offensively, the Bengals play calling felt a little more vanilla than it has in past weeks, and though eventually Guenther turned up the heat on Ben Roethlisberger in the second half, more often than not the chances of the Bengals four-man defensive front landing a finger on Big Ben were about the same as Sonny Corleone surviving the tollbooth ambush.
*What the hell is up with Dalton and Green? These guys have been pitching and catching for four years now, but too often it looks like they don’t speak the same football language. The first of Dalton’s two interceptions Sunday was the result of miscommunication with Green. Coming off the field, cameras showed Green—whose recklessness as a ball carrier has him wading into Jermaine Gresham territory—wanting no part of Dalton, who unfortunately came across like a clingy ex begging for one last chance to say, “I promise I won’t EVER hang you out to dry again on a high throw again.” ESPN Stats & Info noted Sunday that Dalton has more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) when throwing Green’s way in 2014.
*Gio Bernard needs more targets. Bernard running in space is reminiscent of Barry Sanders; Bernard running between the tackles is reminiscent of Trent Richardson. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth noted this during the broadcast Sunday night, but Dalton would do well to check down to Bernard more often. After all, a defender can’t tackle what he can’t touch.
*The post-Burfict defense is settling in. Vontaze Burfict’s season officially ended Dec. 9, two days after the Bengals’ defense suffered a fourth-quarter implosion against the Steelers. Since then, the defense has played well enough to win in each game. Guenther’s unit has recorded nine takeaways in its past three games, and should be looking to continue that streak against Luck, who led the NFL in fumbles during the regular season and also registered nine interceptions in six tilts opposite playoff teams. The Bengals defense seems to be at peace mentally (players are trusting themselves; Guenther is trusting the players) and spiritually (everyone knows Burfict and pre-knee injury Geno Atkins aren’t walking through that door).
Fair or not, the 2014 Bengals’ ultimate judgment was always going to be rooted in playoff success. Andy Dalton could’ve thrown for 40 touchdowns, won the MVP and piloted the team to a 14-2 season—and it all would’ve meant zilch if the team was tripped up in its first playoff contest. Perhaps the Revenge Factor against the Colts can allow Lewis to engage in mental gymnastics this week with a team that will be deluged with (rightfully-earned) doubt-oriented questions and narratives from the local and national media.
If the Bengals operated like just about every other professional sports organization, I’d venture to say the future of the franchise was at stake Sunday, but we all know Dalton is coming back and Lewis is ten times more likely to receive a contract extension Monday morning than a pink slip, regardless of the game result. (And to be clear, I’m not advocating for the firing of Lewis if the Bengals lose.)
So, let’s keep it real: A win over the Colts lifts the mightiest of burdens off anyone who works in PBS and pushes the Bengals closer toward NFL legitimacy; a loss is another damning indictment of the organization—principally Dalton and Lewis—and funnels the fan base further down the Apathy Rabbit Hole.