Well, as with so many other games this year, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was down right ugly in large stretches. But as the final gun sounded in Cincinnati today, the Bengals were holding a 17-10 advantage over the visiting Chiefs, thereby securing the 2009 AFC North division championship and assuring a place at the table in the 2009 playoffs.
Just one week after losing in the last seconds at San Diego and 5 days after burying Chris Henry, the Bengals took the field seeking redemption with heavy hearts and shaken confidence. The tension was obvious from the opening kick, with the Bengals looking more like a desperate team trying not to lose than a fearless juggernaut steamrolling into the postseason.
The ”play it safe” game plan manifested itself with the Bengals attempting to lean heavily on their ground attack and take advantage of the Chiefs’ 31st ranked run defense. The Chiefs countered by doubling Chad Ochocinco then selling out against the run. The early result was a sputtering and overly predictable Cincinnati attack.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: run on first down for 2 or 3 yards. Run on second down for one yard. Throw on 3rd and long. Punt. If you’re a Bengals fan, you have heard this before. A lot.
Today was no different. The Bengals totaled a paltry 274 yards of net offense, and punted a whopping seven times. They appeared tentative and lacked the physicality that we’ve seen in earlier games.
Lucky for offense, the defense did its part to keep them in the game. And so did the Chiefs.
At the 2:31 mark in the second quarter, Kansas City LS Tom Gafford’s snap sailed over punter Dustin Colquitt’s head and bounced towards the Chiefs’ goal line. Colquitt alertly kicked the ball out of bounds for a penalty, but saved a potential Bengals touchdown. After a four play drive netted negative 2 yards (including another costly penalty that erased a Carson Palmer to Chad Ochocinco touchdown), the Bengals settled for a 29-yard Shayne Graham field goal and a 3-0 lead with 1:42 left in the half.
The Chiefs responded quickly, and put together a perfectly executed 13-play, 69 yard drive capped off by a 30 yard Ryan Succop field goal to close out the half.
As the Bengals exited the field for halftime, they were deservedly showered by a chorus of boos from the edgy fan base.
They responded to open the second half with an aggressive 10-play, 77 yard drive that started with a powerful 32 yard run by Cedric Benson, and ended with a 10-yard pass from Palmer to Lavernaeus Coles for the touchdown and a 10-3 lead.
The defense stoned the Chiefs and forced a punt, but the offense sputtered again. Kansas City got the ball back and opened the fourth quarter scoring with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cassel to RB Tim Castille, who snagged the pass and hung on as four Bengal defenders converged upon him at the goal line.
Bengaldom again shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, tied at 10, when the Bengals were forced to punt yet again on their next possession after another run-run-incompletion series.
The Chiefs got the ball back, and moved into Cincinnati territory before finally being stopped at the 46 yard line. Colquitt’s sixth punt was handled masterfully by the Chiefs’ coverage unit, and was downed at the Cincinnati 2-yard line with 9:21 remaining in the game.
It appeared as though the tentative tigers were back as on first down Cedric Benson lost a yard, doing his best to simply get out of the end zone to avoid the safety. Benson carried again on second down, gaining a pedestrian four yards and setting up a crucial 3rd and 7 from the five yard line. The Bengals appeared to be on their heels, simply looking for just enough yardage for a safe punt. The Chiefs were looking like the better team, and prepared to get the ball back with good field position and a chance to take the lead.
But as has been the case so many other times this season, when the Bengals look to be on their last leg, they respond like champions do. The cardiac cats converted the third down when RB Brian Leonard took Palmer’s shovel pass and muscled for eight yards. As he has all year, Leonard seemed to will his way to the needed yardage.
Suddenly, the Bengals remembered that they could throw the ball, as Palmer went to WR Andre Caldwell on the next four downs, two of which gained sixteen yards and a first down, and a third that generated another first down on an illegal contact penalty.
Next, Palmer found Coles for 21 yards and a first down at the KC 45. They then went back to the run, with Benson picking up 20 to the Chief 25 yard line. After 2 more short gains by Benson, the Bengals faced another crucial third down. Needing 6 yards to keep the drive alive, Palmer found Coles again for 12 yards and a first and goal at the nine yard line.
Marvin Lewis elected to burn clock as the 2:00 warning approached, and went back to the running game, with Cedric Benson getting to the six yard line after two carries netted 3 yards. Chiefs coach Todd Haley called a timeout with 2:05 remaining, hoping to preserve as much time as possible for a comeback.
On 3rd and goal from the six, Carson Palmer zipped a laser in to Chad Ochocinco, who had beaten CB Brandon Flowers to the inside. Graham’s extra point made it a 7 point lead with two minutes to go, and Paul Brown Stadium cheered nervously. The best the Chiefs could do with the last minutes of the game would be to force overtime.
It appeared as though a tie was entirely possible as Cassel quickly led the Chiefs into Bengals territory. But Cassel’s deep pass attempt to WR Chris Chambers with 1:13 left was intercepted by CB Leon Hall at the Bengal 19 yard line.
And all of Bengaldom could finally exhale.
The division championship is the first for the Bengals since 2005, but this team appears unsatisfied with just winning this division, their minds are already on higher goals. “If we want to earn a hat, there are two more to earn,” said Coach Marvin Lewis. “That’s what I told them. Enjoy it, congratulations. But there are two more to earn, and that’s a different atmosphere than it was a few years ago in Detroit, which is good.”
A lot has been written about the improved maturity of this year’s Bengals, and while they clearly played down to their competition again today, and continue to have issues, they are more prepared for a deeper run than the 2005 addition.
The Bengals go to the Meadowlands next week to face the Jets, who handed the Colts their first loss on the season today. The Jets will have plenty to play for, as they will be trying to hold onto the last wildcard spot, and will be hosting the last Jet game in Giants Stadium. The Bengals will be playing for the possible 3rd seed in the AFC playoffs if they can win and the Texans can defeat the Patriots.