A few months ago, the 20th anniversary of the film Heat’s release passed. No discussion of the heist thriller genre is complete without Michael Mann’s masterpiece account of a master thief (Robert De Niro) attempting to outpoint an unwavering detective (Al Pacino). (The movie marked De Niro and Pacino’s first film together since Godfather Part II. Both actors were still in their primes, and the hype machine was fully cranked.) One of the film’s chief themes is timing, as well as time itself. The plot is centered around a few characters having not enough of time or just enough of it at key intervals. Sometimes those moments are under their control; other times, they are most certainly not.
During the infamous diner scene, De Niro and Pacino have an exchange about how De Niro’s persistent drowning nightmare relates to time. Pacino asks De Niro if he has enough time to do what he wants to do, which, unbeknownst to Pacino, is escape the country with his girlfriend.
“No,” De Niro says. “Not yet.”
It’s typically difficult to discern the result of the game when Marvin Lewis ambles into his postgame press conference. But after falling 33-20 to the Steelers on Dec. 13 and losing Andy Dalton to a fractured thumb, the nearly-always stoic Lewis appeared a bit worn down by the timing of what could be a season-altering injury.
Instead of securing the franchise’s fourth AFC North crown and fifth straight playoff appearance—and in turn moving one step closer to a first-round bye—the Bengals were left to pick up the pieces after an injury-ravaged setback to Pittsburgh, which prevailed for the fifth time in its past six tries at Paul Brown Stadium and prevented Cincinnati from sweeping the season series between the two division foes for the first time since 2009. (The result capped a rough 24 hours for the Queen City; Pete Rose’s bid for reinstatement was denied the next day.)
The week post-Pittsburgh extracted some positivity, however. Dalton will avoid surgery on his thumb, preserving the possibility of a return this season. Sunday in San Francisco, the Bengals and their new quarterback, AJ McCarron, played well enough to defeat a mostly-hapless 49ers outfit 24-14, securing that fifth consecutive postseason berth in the process.
A former two-time national champ at Alabama who was selected by the Bengals in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, McCarron’s self-confidence is public knowledge at this juncture, and he has looked more than capable in Dalton’s stead. McCarron’s pick-six to open the second half vs. Pittsburgh was a horrid read, but otherwise, he stepped into a burdensome situation and asserted himself well, completing 69 percent of his 32 attempts, throwing for 280 yards, and logging two touchdowns and two interceptions. The most refreshing part of McCarron’s showing in relief and in his first start on Sunday (15-of-21, 192 yards, a touchdown, no turnovers) is that unlike many NFL backups—and starters, for that matter—is that McCarron is no checkdown artist; he is willing and able to chuck the pigskin down the field.
“The hard part would be, if he didn’t have the personality that he has. This kid has a great personality. It’s why he’s here. He’s got the guys in the building’s confidence,” said Lewis when asked about McCarron after the loss to the Steelers. “We’ve been so impressed with him. And now he’s got to lead us for however long. I’m glad that we’ve got him. This is why we have him. This is why we drafted him. And this is why we’ve had him here—for times like today.”
Opposite the Steelers, the injuries arrived fast and furious on the unseasonably warm day in Cincinnati. Dalton and tight end Tyler Eifert (concussion) were done after the first series. Safety George Iloka, battling a nagging groin injury, left shortly thereafter. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict left the field once in the first half and twice more after intermission. Defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Leon Hall missed time. Safety Shawn Williams had to leave the game. Throw in the fact that Adam Jones, one of the Bengals’ most indispensable players, never suited up, and the Bengals—the healthiest team in the NFL entering the game—were left dealing with serious physical adversity for the first time all season, testing the deepest roster Lewis has compiled in his 13 years as coach.
But, only Dalton, Eifert, and Iloka sat Sunday against the 49ers. A week after permitting the Steelers to convert seven of their first nine third-down opportunities, the Bengals re-inserted Burfict into their third-down scheme and the payoff was immediate: San Francisco failed on its first 12 third-down tries. The Bengals defense also relieved the team’s stagnant offense by recording an interception, a forced fumble/fumble recovery, a 3-and-out complete with an 18-yard punt, and another interception on four successive 49ers possessions to close out the second quarter, paving the way to a 21-0 advantage at half.
Again, this team is a special, mature unit; plenty of previous Bengals outfits would’ve folded once Dalton departed opposite the Steelers. Cincinnati’s time-earned, hardened sensibility is why it didn’t panic after losing back-to-back games to the Texans and Cardinals, and it’s why the team didn’t sound the alarm in the days after Dalton’s injury.
Now, a Monday Night Football showdown in Denver awaits, with the winner clinching a first-round bye in the postseason. The cause-and-effect nature of Dalton’s injury is very much in the spotlight this week. Because of the injury to Dalton, achieving a pass through Wild Card Weekend is a must, as any acquired hours grants more healing time for Dalton and his damaged digit. A loss increases the probability that McCarron starts the team’s first playoff game, and at this stage, that postseason contest would come against the surging Steelers, who have won three straight and have scored at least 30 points in six consecutive tilts.
So, the Bengals travel west again this week as both a servant and commander of time. As the schedule-makers would have it, this just happens to be the week the Bengals need their best showing of the season, and they must perform to that level without their starting quarterback. On the other hand, the Bengals’ fate is in their hands; they can mostly control their performance, and with a victory, Cincinnati garners extra hours for Dalton’s thumb to recover.
In any case, time—precious, precious time—is on the line.