Last week I talked about my beloved Bengals having a chance to break out of the “business as usual” formula of losing critical games when they went into Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers for the AFC North championship. I said that they had a chance, despite the injuries that they’d suffered all year. Then they went out and lost to the Steelers, lost the division, and, in doing so, lost the chance at a home playoff game Wild Card weekend. The Bengals had an opportunity in that game, when they were driving with about three minutes left, down 20-17. They’d gotten the ball to the Steelers’ thirty yard line, and then A.J. Green, the Bengals stud wide receiver who was already playing with a badly bruised arm from the Broncos game the week before, took a vicious hit and fumbled the ball. The Steelers recovered, and then on the ensuing drive they scored, and that ended the game, 27-17 Steelers. Pittsburgh had a chance to celebrate, and the Bengals had a cause for concern, as A.J. was diagnosed with a concussion.
But the NFL has the tendency to humble those who get too high on themselves. The Steelers also lost a big piece of their offense in that game, La’veon Bell, their first string running back, and a guy who had been getting it done for them all year. He suffered a hyperextended knee, and he was ruled out for the Steelers’ Wild Card game last night against the division rival Baltimore Ravens. It cost the Steelers in that game. They had to rely on their aerial assault more, it made them one-dimensional, and the Ravens beat them 30-17. I dislike the Ravens, but I freely admit to hating the Steelers, who have pushed the Bengals around pretty much for my teams’ entire existence. I’m not proud of feeling the way I do about it, but sports and competition can bring out the ugly side of people, and I am no exception. So the Steelers fall, the Ravens go on to New England next week, and I breathe a sigh of relief that Pittsburgh won the division but won’t be winning a seventh Superbowl, at least not this year.
But what of the Bengals? My team, without A.J. Green, must now go into Indianapolis to face the Colts, a team that beat them 27-0 a couple of months ago. The Bengals have played without key guys all year. It’s a credit to them that they finished the season 10-5-1, and grabbed a Wild Card berth. Now, using primarily a running game and stout defense, can they go on the road and beat a good quarterback like Andrew Luck? History says no. Andy Dalton, the much maligned Cinci quarterback, has had one of his worst years, from a statistical standpoint. He’s thrown almost as many interceptions this year as he has touchdowns. He’s 0-3 in the playoffs, and Marvin Lewis, who is the second longest tenured coach in the NFL, is 0-5. Those are ugly numbers. Both of those guys are still looking up at the same thing they have been for the past three years: the Bengals have not won a playoff game since January of 1991. It’s twenty-four years now and counting. Marvin Lewis has now cemented a place in team history…he has a winning record with the team, and he’s won the most games ever as Bengals head coach. He’s well regarded in the league. But unless you lead your team to playoff success, you’re a failure, ultimately, in my book. It’s not about regular season wins. It’s not about divisional titles. It’s about winning in go-home, knockout games. And this combination of Dalton and Lewis hasn’t done it yet. So here we go. In a couple of hours, both these guys have a chance to silence their critics. Can they go on the road and win? Can they take a step toward reversing so many generations of Bengal futility? I have my doubts. But anything is possible. Be sure that this die-hard fan will be watching.