There are cardboard boxes somewhere inside Paul Brown Stadium with cheaply produced and poorly fashioned baseball hats and t-shirts that read "Cincinnati Bengals: 2009 AFC North Champions" inside of them. These boxes were lugged to Minnesota and to San Diego, but sat in the locker room ignored after each loss. They will be there again this weekend, and by Monday morning they should be empty, and then hopefully recycled.
It doesn't have to pretty, but it has to happen.
Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the first must-win game of the Bengals' season. It is strange that it comes in Week 16 against the 3-11 Kansas City Chiefs and is perhaps stranger that it's still not sold out, but it's been a weird year for this team so why should things start making any sense now?
First off, we might as well evaluate the worst-case scenarios. The most obvious of these is that the Bengals lose both remaining games and miss the postseason altogether---I don't even want to think about that.
A close second, however, might be losing to Kansas City and watching Pittsburgh beat Baltimore. While Cincinnati would win the division that way, the last thing this city wants is any help from those bastards. Putting on the championship hats and t-shirts after a loss is like singing Happy Birthday to your self; no one wants to see that.
All of these nightmares can vanish with a win. It doesn't matter if it ends 3-0; any win will do. Only then will I sit back in my chair, pour myself a delicious Celebration Ale, and rub the stubble on my chin that will soon become a patchy, unkempt playoff beard.
It shouldn't be all that difficult for the men in stripes, but at this point we know better than to assume that any win is an easy one. The Chiefs are far from a scary team though and have little other than pride and a paycheck to play for.
They demonstrated a certain lethargy last week against the Browns, particularly in the form of bad tackling which allowed Jerome Harrison to run for nearly two-and-a-half football fields by the end of the day. The Bengals now employ one of the most prolific runners in Chiefs history who is itching to duplicate that kind of total against his ex-franchise. Larry Johnson in all likelihood will still play second fiddle to Cedric Benson, but maybe Marvin Lewis throws him out there an extra couple of times just to placate the man's thirst for revenge. Also, the Bengals expect Bernard Scott to return this week, providing outside running capabilities that are sorely missed when he's out. Scott's kick-returning talents might also prove more valuable than usual as the Chiefs allowed two returns for touchdowns last week to the great Josh Cribbs.
Although the dormant volcano of Mt. Carson and the passing game stirred a little last week, if the Bengals can rack up rushing totals even close to what Cleveland did I wouldn't expect much through the air. Brady Quinn ended with 66 yards passing but his team ended with 41 points; those are the kinds of totals these new Bengals crave.
Kansas City also happens to be plagued with the worst set of hands I've ever seen. Dwayne Bowe has a rare form of Braylon Edwards syndrome, he has some explosiveness but drops passes. Chris Chambers has become their best receiver but dropped a crucial pass to Buffalo in Week 14 which led to a Chiefs loss. Mark Bradley was cut this week for dropping too many passes. The list goes on.
Matt Cassell still isn't great---he is solid and should certainly improve---but he has received little help from his targets in KC. Chambers, despite his age, is still a viable deep threat who has made plays since joining the Chiefs. Cassell looks for Chambers down the sideline when he's left in single coverage, so Zimmer may want to give his side some safety help in that occasion, but I don't see the need to give too much attention to Kansas City's passing offense.
This is especially the case when their best offensive player looks to be their tailback, Jamaal Charles. He took over as the feature back in Week 10 and has put up respectable totals in that time, including gaining 154 yards last week. They like to give it to Charles on the pitch and on shotgun hand-offs, and also don't shy away from using him as a receiver. He's not the biggest back (199 lbs.) and like many smaller guys he looks most comfortable bouncing it to the outside. Bengal linebackers moving laterally and taking good angles that eliminate Charles from turning the corner should play a key role to how well the Chiefs can operate on offense.
Of course it would be nice if the penalties were minimized and the fumbles disappeared, but there isn't much to say about it that hasn't already been echoed a thousand times. If the goal is the Super Bowl and Beyond, than it must stop. It simply must.
Sunday’s game also seems like a game in which Jerome Simpson could get a chance to add to his two career receiving yards. I understand not wanting to rely on the greenhorn in a big game like that of the San Diego contest, but if he's activated again on Sunday, I'd like to see him get a few crumbs tossed his way. At this point, he's a second-round pick whose best proven ability has been taking up a roster spot. I'm all for the little guy getting over on The Man by getting paid to do very little, but I kind of want to see this guy earn some of that money that you and I can only dream of collecting.
Like I've said: I don't really care how it happens as long as it happens. Living through Week 17 with the stress of possibly missing the postseason is more than my nerves can handle. This is the week in which it gets done. This is the week our Bengals become a Playoff Team. This week. Sunday. Now.
Bengals 26, Chiefs 20
Mojokong---May the real Holidays begin January 9, 2010.