Well, as it turns out, there are still a few chinks in the striped armor. After a convincing blow-out of Chicago, the Bengals followed their bye week with solid wins over Baltimore at home and Pittsburgh on the road. All three wins were a testament to the kind of mentally tough team Marvin Lewis is trying to build. They were beginning to look like championship material. Then New England lost to Indianapolis, and suddenly the Bengals owned the second seed in the AFC playoff race. Though still early, it meant a first round bye, and home field advantage in the AFC semi-finals.
At 7-2, the upcoming schedule looked inviting. At Oakland, then home bouts with Cleveland and Detroit. Any casual observer saw a 10-2 record with four games to go, making the Bengals a virtual playoff shoo-in. Better yet, as last Sunday’s 1:00 PM games concluded, we saw Baltimore and Pittsburgh both take it on the chin. All the Bengals needed to do was take care of an inferior Raiders team to stretch out to a 3 game lead in the tough AFC North.
Unfortunately, like against Denver and Houston, the Bengals played down to their competition and lost. There is no doubt in my mind that this Bengals team is better than the 2005 addition that made the playoffs, but there is a disturbing trend that needs immediate correction if the 2009 version will likewise go.
Now I know that some will say that Denver won on a fluke play, and this is pretty true. Others will say that the team was due for a loss when Houston came to town. And there are pockets of Bengaldom that will insist that this team will learn from the mistakes in Oakland, and come back even better. All of which is certainly a half-full outlook. Being a fan for as long as I’ve been, I have seen too many collapses and late game absurdity to be so comfortable. I could point out that the Denver game should not have been so close in the first place if not for kicking gaffes and poor offensive play calling. I could argue that the Houston game was inexcusable at home. I could point out that if journeyman quarterback Bruce Gradkowski played a 16 game schedule against the Bengals, he’d be Brett Favre re-born. Disturbing considering they still must play the original version in Minnesota in a few weeks.
The Bengals jumped out to an easy 14 point lead on the Raiders, and then seemed to take their foot off the gas. They also seemed to forget how to secure the football. I have no problem with using a strong running game to win football games. I also have no issues with trying to take the air out of the ball with a lead, but this team lacked killer instinct on Sunday. They appeared to believe that the game was sewn up, even with 2 quarters to go.
It seemed overconfident. Confidence is key to success, but overconfidence can lead to ruin. It looked from my perspective like no one on the Bengals side doubted victory until Gradkowski threw his second (that’s right, SECOND) touchdown pass with thirty-three seconds left. This after he converted an all-or-nothing fourth and ten.
Suddenly the Bengals looked edgy and anxious. Andre Caldwell tries to do too much with the kick-off return, and suddenly, the game was lost. For the final eight-plus minutes of the fourth quarter, the worst possible scenario was overtime. As the silver and black body landed on the loose ball at the Bengal 17 yard line, defeat was all but assured. TV viewers were treated to seeing Caldwell’s shocked and freighted eyes as Janikowski’s kick sailed through the uprights.
This loss was inexcusable. Marvin Lewis said afterwards that the team should learn a lesson from the loss. Indeed, they should have learned it against Denver in week one. Their next opponent, Cleveland, took them to overtime earlier this year. They can, and will beat the Bengals if given half a chance. Believe it or not, so can Detroit.
This team needs to take advantage of this rare and wonderful opportunity. They need to take EVERY opponent seriously and treat them like the Steelers or the Ravens. Otherwise they could be home in January watching the Steelers win another ring.