1. The Bengals backed into the playoffs thanks to a series of losses by fellow contenders (the Jets, Broncos, and Raiders), but it’s still a tremendous accomplishment considering their situation at the beginning of the year. They were installing a rookie quarterback from a non-BCS school as a starter. They had a rookie offensive coordinator – and an offseason that was extremely compressed due to the NFL lockout. Some people predicted that they would be the worst team in the NFL, perhaps even going winless. Instead, they finished 9-7 and caught the breaks that usually go against them to ride into the playoffs. Even if Cincinnati is one and done in the playoffs at Houston, the experience alone will be beneficial in the years to come. It was also nice to see the Raiders lose their last game, giving the Bengals a slightly better draft pick in April.
2. The Bengals certainly didn’t get many breaks from the officials in yesterday’s game. An early Cincinnati first down was taken away after Baltimore challenged the spot of the football – even though the video didn’t seem to provide conclusive proof to overturn the original call. Then, the Ravens got some free yardage after a Reggie Nelson shoulder hit was ruled (incorrectly) to be unnecessary roughness. Later, the Bengals were forced to punt after the refs missed a pass interference call on third-and-long. And for added measure, A.J. Green had his jersey grabbed in the endzone on the second-to-last play of the game. You never want to blame officials for an outcome, but they certainly played a larger role in the game than they should have.
3. Andrew Hawkins is electric. Hawkins had three catches for 34 yards and a rush for three yards. The numbers alone aren’t eye-popping, but the kid makes plays every time he gets a chance. Cincinnati would be wise to find him opportunities for as long as their playoff run lasts. It will also be interesting to see how he’s intergrated into the offense with Jordan Shipley returning next season.
4. You have to be excited about the youthful core of the Bengals team. Andy Dalton is an effective quarterback in his first season and should only get better. A.J. Green has shown that he might be one of the league’s best wide receivers. Jermaine Gresham is a talented tight end with all of the athletic tools to be successful. Hawkins is dynamic. And Bernard Scott and Ryan Whalen – who is getting increased playing time and had a few nice blocks in the running game – are solid complementary players. And on defense, Geno Atkins is a monster in the middle, Carlos Dunlap is extremely talented at defensive end and there are some effective players around them. Safety is an obvious area of concern with Chris Crocker on the wrong side of 30 and Reggie Nelson maddeningly inconsistent. But overall, there is enough talent that with some solid selections in the coming draft, the Bengals should be a factor in the immediate future.
5. Leon Hall is dearly missed. Arcade Game Jones just isn’t as physical as Hall and doesn’t do as much in the run game. Something tells me Ray Rice wouldn’t have been running free in the secondary quite as often if Hall were around. Let’s hope Hall is able to return to full health next season.
Extra Point: Andre Johnson, who missed the first game with the Bengals, will be a tough matchup next week. Quarterback T.J. Yates, who left yesterday’s game with a minor shoulder injury, will be back under center for the playoff game. The Bengals will have to beef up their run defense against the ground-oriented Texans after getting gashed by the Ravens. Even though the Bengals finished the regular season with a whimper, they’re still in the playoffs.
And after all that we’ve been through as fans, we should enjoy it.