The way the Bengals clinched the division was a perfect representation of the kind of year it's been for Cincinnati. It had everything we're used to seeing from this team: a slow-paced ground battle, a strong defensive showing complete with another costly injury and of course their signature late-game drive to win.
It was the ultimate sample; an underwhelming 17-10 win against the lowly Chiefs. Nothing too fancy or even that interesting, but like the last brick in the pyramid it completed something great and wondrous---the Playoffs.
Getting there takes a lot of various things in the universe to all line up in just the right way. We in Cincinnati don't experience the phenomenon very often; it's our own Haley's Comet. Many of us are unsure how to properly celebrate something of this nature. Should we freak out and overturn cars? Should we keep cool and act like we've been there before? Should we pretend that we aren't satisfied until we win a Super Bowl? Or should we just grow our beards and smile strangely for the next few weeks?
I suppose there will be a little of everything until we collectively become more familiar with coping with success. I know there are many of us who don't like the Bengals' Playoff chances (and there's plenty of time to discuss such things), but for now look back. Remember August? Only the optimists gave Cincinnati much of a chance. I was in the skeptics’ corner holding up a sign that looked like this: 7-9. The division was too tough, the offensive line was too suspect, Carson Palmer was in decline. I underestimated their grit, and so did the rest of the AFC North. And now the smoky rubble and debris, the wreckage of a season, is piled behind them and while they appear a little worn and dusty, they stand here before us asking for more. Even if they drive you crazy most of the time, ya gotta love these guys.
Sunday was a predictable showing. After hemorrhaging gobs of rushing yards last week to the Browns, it made sense that the Bengals would try to run it down Kansas City's throat and that the Chiefs would try like hell to stop them. The Bengals found a little more fight from KC than they expected, and struggled to adjust before halftime.
Then, in the second half, things looked differently. Benson and the line ripped off big chunks of yardage, Carson sharpened up when he had to, and the defense held up enough to avoid the late collapse. It was a fairly nondescript game that had some fans nodding off by halftime. Excitement and revelry weren't exactly the order of the day but the 98-yard touchdown drive had its moments (I'm a huge proponent for the shovel pass and I thought the one to Brian Leonard on third-and-seven was well-crafted and perfectly executed).
The most noteworthy moment of the game, unfortunately, was when Rey Maualuga broke his ankle. The defense has successfully carried on without a handful of its starters at various points in the season, and Rashad Jeanty will be the newest replacement in Mike Zimmer's operation, but how long can they hold up as a top-5 defense while being forced to play so many reserves? I allowed my expectations of Maualuga to grow to wild proportions---I thought we'd see Mike Singletary from the first play---and while Rey didn't quite take the league by storm, he was an integral part to the scheme, surprisingly so in coverage. I thought his best attribute to the team was his ability to move laterally and force outside ball carriers to the sidelines. From the way Marvin Lewis talks, it sounds as if the ankle was a clean break and that Rey should have no problems being ready for next season---when I will once again amp up the Rey Maualuga hype---but for now, he's an afterthought. Editor’s note: Once again allow me to apologize for my role in Maualuga’s injury by choosing Sunday to wear my brand new 58 jersey.
Jeanty isn't a bad backup. He is strong against the run and is a solid tackler, but he is slow and can't cover the kind of ground Maualuga does. I would expect to see Brandon Johnson used at the SAM spot on passing downs, and Dan Skuta will now likely be rotated in more often to give the starters a rest. These are the scenarios that warrant the hours of debate on cut day. The reserves, even the ones way down on the depth-chart, are sometimes forced into action and they had better be ready when it happens.
At this point of the season, every team is dealing with injuries and positional depth becomes paramount. So far, the Bengals have enjoyed a valuable resource of quality backups; each seemingly prepared and trusted by the coaching staff. The new wave of backups-to-starters, if nothing else, provides a physical freshness while they learn on the job and gain valuable experience. Mike Zimmer is arguably the reason the Bengals will play in the postseason this year, and I expect him to plug in Jeanty without any catastrophic affects on the defense as a whole. His gang of castaways and rejects must continue its inspired play for the team to advance further into January, but again, that conversation can wait until tomorrow.
For now, I'm still not ready to leave my bubble bath, where I've been celebrating in bursts with raucous hooting and live ammunition, and filling my head with thick, syrupy stouts and talking with the ghost of Paul Brown himself. We're both very satisfied but we'd like to see Bernard Scott get more touches.
Mojokong---Please send each of our corners to the Pro Bowl. Thank you.