After going 4-0 in the 2nd quarter of the season, posting wins over Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Seattle and Tennessee, the Bengals entered the toughest stretch of their schedule with four straight division games, including two against the Evil Empire. The third quarter was no so kind, seeing the Bengals go 1-3 with the only win coming late against the lowly Cleveland Browns.
I summarize the three losses in three words.
One of the things that separate the tough teams from the rest of the field is that they are looking for you to make a mistakes and will make you pay for them. The Bengals had been able to overcome mistakes to get to 6-2, but Pittsburgh and Baltimore took advantage of the opportunities handed to them.
In week 10, the Bengals gained a mere 2 yds on their first possession. Kevin Huber follows up that poor showing with a 38 yd punt to give Pittsburgh a short field, setting up the first of two straight TDs. The Bengals got on track and got to within 7 points, but two INTs with the ball in Pittsburgh territory derailed the rally.
The following week against Baltimore, the Bengals had 3 more interceptions (all intended for Andre Caldwell) that gift-wrapped 14 points for the Ravens. Late in the 3rd qtr, with the Bengals trailing 17-14, Dalton was picked by Smith. Simpson popped the ball loose, but the Ravens recovered on the 2 yard line and scored on the next play. Four plays later, Dalton is intercepted by Webb at the Cin 38. Inexplicably, both safeties let Torrey Smith get behind them (in a situation where every NFL team takes a shot at the end zone following a turnover) for another TD and to put the Bengals down 17. Finally, after scoring 10 and being 7 yards from tying the game, five Bengals linemen get bull-rushed by three Ravens linemen to force three straight incompletions to end the game, including an intentional grounding penalty.
Against Cleveland, the Bengals’ first drive is stopped at the 1 yard line on 4th-and-goal. And their final drive is held to a field goal after being 1st-and-goal at the 2 yard line, thanks in part to a false start penalty on Nate Livings.
The rematch against the Steelers was a special teams debacle. After allowing a FG to be blocked, Brandon Tate fumbled a kickoff to set up the Steelers third TD of the 2nd qtr, then allows Antonio Brown to return a punt for the 4th TD of the quarter. Chris Crocker made his own contribution with a 45-yd pass interference penalty.
After converting 28 of 63 (44.4%) on third down opportunities in Weeks 5-9, the Bengals converted only 17 of 51 (33.3%) of opportunities in Weeks 10-13, including only 11 of 37 (29.7%) in the three losses. Punting 70% of the time is a tough way to try to win.
The Titans aided in this 3rd quarter skid when Carlos Dunlap injured his hamstring against them. When the Bengals most needed the power and havoc he brings, he was forced to the sideline. This stretch of games also saw other key contributors hampered, including Leon Hall lost to an Achillies injury, Adam Jones still limited by a hamstring problem, Pat Sims suffering a leg injury, and Nate Clements nicked with a hamstring problem. “Next man up” sounds great, but certain guys are key for a specific reason, and none of the teams in the last for games got the Bengals at full strength. But such is life in the NFL.
The last four games were going to tell us a lot about the Bengals, and they did. We knew that they had flaws, and we saw those flaws exploited. We knew they could rally late in games, and we saw them rally three times, though falling short in two of them.
We learned that they could take a punch and still punch back, something that teams in the recent past could not do. We learned that the secondary is still the weak link to this team. And we learned that special teams may not be the ace in the hole that we thought they were.
Looking forward, the home stretch bring three home games against the Texans, the Cardinals and the Ravens, with a lone away game against a very beatable Rams team. Beating the struggling Cardinals and Rams are considered gimmes by fans, but the team cannot look past them because those wins are crucial to any playoff hopes. They can afford to lose to either the Texans or Ravens, but not both. Besides, I would rather see this team play its best ball in December in getting ready for the playoffs.
The loss to the Steelers was a bitter pill, but it was not a knock-out punch unless the team lets it linger into the coming weeks. A bounce-back against another tough team, the Texans, is imperative, not just to stay in control of the #6 playoff seed, but to prove to themselves and the rest of the country that they can compete with a good opponent.