I remember roller coasters as a kid -- the range of emotions felt throughout the experience. In the beginning, you impatiently stand in line. And those lines can be so painfully long, you start hopping a little because five Cokes within an hour tends to get to you. But you won't leave. You can't. Losing your place in line would be like releasing a fourth Indiana Jones movie. A disaster.
Finally reaching the end, I settle into the train, watching the padded metal bar descend across our laps. I was anxious, thrilled, nervous and excited. Boy, was I excited. Sometimes I felt deathly afraid -- like the first time on the Vortex, my first coaster with a loop. But not enough to bail out. I worked too hard not to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I'm going to enjoy the ride, even if I white-knuckle grip the metal handlebars along the way.
This is the Cincinnati Bengals. When the season started I was nervous, but anxious. Excited but deathly afraid. How would the team respond after going 4-11-1 the season before? Would they repeat a similarly frustrating season? Or would they have another unfulfilling 8-8 season? Or for the love of god, could they actually excite us all with a playoff appearance? Or thrill us against the impossible odds of clinching the division?
Either way, fans had a roller coaster of emotions when the season started. Those emotions shifted throughout the season. We were anxious, excited, thrilled and sometimes cocky. We were also disappointed at times, frustrated, if not overly concerned that Cincinnati would stumble. Don't worry. We're a naturally nervous group.
But that's the way it's been for me this season. At one point, I was nervous that the Bengals could lose to the Chargers, Vikings and Jets. But what really made me a nervous wreck, was the very real possibility that the Bengals would play down to the competition against Kansas City and lose a game they should win. All the while, either Baltimore or Pittsburgh would win out and snatch the division from us. Yes, 2006 replayed in my mind. It wasn't a big awful thing in my mind. It was just there, mocking me when something bad happened. At the same time, I knew that the 2006 squad wasn't the same as this year's squad. In 2006, several players were nailed with character issues that some characterize Cincinnati as having even today? This year, the team shows a different character. A new set of virtues that they haven't had in a really long time. In 2006, glory was an exploding offense with beautiful passes on deep routes. In 2009, glory is winning football games with everything else becoming a trivial and a distant second.
This squad has shown that they will not stop fighting with grit and guts. They have what it takes to win any game that they play. How many times as Bengals fans can we remember in which the Bengals had a chance to win every game they played, except for one?
As if the game of football plays on the roller coaster of emotions, when the Bengals clinched the AFC North Sunday night I was relieved and excited again. But I'm also nervous. We're heading into another loop and there's so much unexpected to expect. But if we're anything, we're anxious thrilled and excited. Because this roller coaster ride is about to get so much better. After all, glory is defined by one thing only. Victory. And the 2009 Bengals have been glorious.
Moving on. Let's get to the heart of Cincinnati's 17-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Oh, Carson. Oh, Carson. One of the more frustrating things about Carson Palmer Sunday was, well, Carson Palmer. But not entirely. Sometimes he gets entirely too much blame. However, through two quarters, Palmer completed only four passes for 19 yards, including an interception. Can you remember the last time that Palmer only attempted nine passes in the first half? Six of the eight plays during Cincinnati's opening possession, the Bengals ran the football. And in Benson's first four runs, he gained 25 yards. It wasn't until a reverse to Chad Ochocinco that the Bengals drive stalled. Why do you call another rushing play after losing two yards on a reverse? Palmer threw an incomplete on his second attempted pass of the drive. Bengals punt.
|1st Half||2nd Half|
|* Includes 9-yard sack|
With good field position and 4:34 left in the first quarter, Palmer dumped a pass off to Cedric Benson after the Chiefs dropped eight guys into coverage. After a no-gain run by Benson, Palmer threw another incomplete third-down pass. Bengals punt. After Larry Johnson picked up two yards with 14:49 left in the first half, Carson Palmer tried streching the field on a deep pass to Andre Caldwell. It was intercepted. Personally, I didn't mind that it was picked; Cincinnati needs to keep stretching the field, if for anything, preventing the opposing defense from run blitzing the team into limited gains on the ground.
Andrew Whitworth set the team backwards with a false start. The offense never recovers with 13:02 left in the first half. Even so, the play calling becomes suspect. With 15 yards to go for a first down, Larry Johnson's number is called twice for three yards rushing. Palmer dumps a third-down pass to Brian Leonard who can't work his third-down magic. Bengals punt.
After Chinedum Ndukwe intercepted a Matt Cassel pass with 10:50 left in the first half, Palmer threw a first-down pass to Jeremi Johnson down the right sidelines for nine yards. Then the Bengals called three straight running plays to pick up 13 yards, leaving a third-and-one with 9:25 left in the first half. With the play clock ticking away, the team takes their time calling a quarterback sneak, in which Palmer converts. No, no, no. Bengals called a timeout to prevent a delay of game. Benson takes the third-down handoff and comes up inches short. Didn't matter. Jeremi Johnson was called for offensive holding. Now, instead of having a first down simply by not calling a timeout, the Bengals are forced to pick up 11 yards for the first down. Palmer sacked. Bengals punt.
The Bengals defense starts to bend, but typical to their fashion all season, they never broke. An 11-play Kansas City drive goes for naught, when the Chiefs elect to punt with 2:31 left in the half. A bad snap, an illegal touch kick out of bounds gives Cincinnati the ball at the Chiefs seven-yard line. A touchdown was reversed and Palmer threw back-to-back incomplete passes underneath. Bengals kick a field goal. Kansas City would go on a 13-play, 69-yard drive to tie the game heading into half time.
Where oh where could our receivers be? Four times Palmer threw the football on third down. Four times the Bengals didn't convert. And once, Palmer was sacked. Was the first half all of Palmer's fault? Maybe, maybe not. He's forcing throws to Chad Ochocinco, which is likely something defenses are aware of. Furthermore, Chad was the only wide receiver that Palmer attempted a throw to. So where were the other receivers?
But this has kind of been a trend all season. Palmer finds Chad because Chad gets open. And if no one else gets open, Palmer trusts Chad enough to throw him the football anyway. So if you're a defense, why bother covering any other wide receiver?
Well, we found Coles and Cosby. The second half story was improved. Much improved. Palmer completed an eight-yard pass to Quan Cosby on third-and-five with 10:37 left in the third quarter. Not only did Palmer convert a third down with an attempted pass, he did it to a wide receiver not named Chad. Two plays later, Palmer nailed Laveranues Coles crossing the middle, who had an unopposed lane into the endzone. Cincinnati takes the lead.
In the next series, with 5:51 left in the third, Palmer found Andre Caldwell but threw an incomplete pass to Coles on third down forcing another punt, which was partially blocked. Either way, we've attempted passes to other receivers.
Could that actually have been a half-time adjustment? Nah. Well. Maybe.
Then Cincinnati became the team that clinched the AFC North. After Kansas City tied the game on the first play of the fourth quarter, Cincinnati primed the starter and the mechanisms began to move. The team that we've seen all year started breaking through the shell. Chipping away at the rough exterior that's kept the offense dorment. It was, as its supposed to be, a team bound to win and doing whatever is necessary to accomplish the only glory that this team cares for. Victory.
With 12:02 left in the fourth quarter, the defense bent, but again, never broke. This defense rarely breaks. But they do bend. And that's fine as long as the glory is establish with victory, mead and wenches. With 9:45 left in the game, Cassel took the shotgun snap on third-and-seven at Kansas City's own 49-yard line. Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson stunted from the right side, looping around towards the middle of the offensive line. Cassel momentarily saw the open lane and threw a pass over the middle. Johnson put his arms up, knocked down the pass and forced the Chiefs to punt.
Not only did Johnson have what could amount to the defensive play of the game, it set up Cincinnati's game-winning touchdown drive.
There's always hope when someone believes. Even then, it appeared hopeless. Like the fading sun inviting a winter storm wind. At their own two yard line, Palmer hands off to Benson, who barely makes it to the one-yard line. Great. Bengals are stuck with second-and-11 at their own one-yard line. What do most NFL teams do at their own one-yard line? Palmer handed off to Benson, who aimed for the middle of the offensive line, picking up four yards. Impressive, considering the defense is expecting a run and jamming the middle to force Benson to bounce outside. He didn't need to because the Bengals offensive line manned up.
Still, third-and-seven at their own five-yard line invites another run, or something that says, "we're more worried about turning the ball over than we are converting the third down." So, Carson Palmer shovels a pass to Brian Leonard, the Godly Running Back of Third Downs, and keeps the team's drive alive.
Put your hand up if you believe that the Bengals could sustain a drive today? They didn't do it much Sunday, so there was no reason to believe that they'd literally go the length of the field. Still, field position is important and Cincinnati was slowly breaking away from their own endzone. Then Palmer completes another third down pass to Andre Caldwell for a six-yard gain. Are you serious? Palmer completes another pass to Caldwell, who for some reason comes out of hibernation during game-winning pressure situations. Now, if he's more influenced on the game in the first 50 minutes, we're onto something.
Oh, Cedric. It's you. Well, since you're here. Take care of things for us. Palmer hits Laveranues Coles for 21 yards with 6:10 left in the game, finally passing midfield into Chiefs territory. Now, Cedric Benson takes over. In five of the next six plays, Benson gets the call, picking up 26 yards on the ground. Palmer was forced to complete a third down pass beautifully to Laveranues Coles in the process.
With 2:05 left in the game, the Bengals line up in shotgun on third-and-goal at the Chiefs six-yard line. It was at this moment, this play, that Cincinnati finally achieved their first goal that's been within reach for weeks. Palmer takes the shotgun snap, drops back a few steps. Chad Ochocinco, lined up on the right, fakes a fade and slants in. Palmer hits Chad with a pass somewhat behind him. But Chad, being perhaps the greatest receiver in franchise history, as well as one of the most talented guys in the league, redirects himself backwards to catch the AFC North clinching touchdown pass.
It was glorious.
Cincinnati doesn't win pretty. They just win. They are old school. They represent the AFC North of wearing you down with a powerful rushing attack and an unbreakable defense. The Cincinnati Bengals are the AFC North Champions. And they will represent this division well.
A few notes after Sunday.
- Chad Ochocinco's six-yard touchdown pass gave him nine touchdowns on the season, one away from a career-high ten touchdowns he recorded in 2003.
- Chad now has 1,047 yards receiving on the season, giving him 1,000-yards receiving or more in seven of his past eight seasons.
- Marvin Lewis won his 56th game as the Bengals head coach, surpassing the legendary Paul Brown for second-most in franchise history.
- Cedric Benson's 133 yards rushing rushing gives him six 100-yard rushing performances this season -- a new franchise record.
- Also, Benson's performance against the Chiefs on Sunday gives him 11 career 11-yard rushing games, nine of which were with Cincinnati. In fact, Benson has recorded a 100-yard rushing game in 36% of the games he's played in a Bengals uniform.