This past season was something that many of us, along with many prognosticators, did not expect. The team accomplished more than expected by sweeping the division for the first time in franchise history which propelled them to a second division title in 5 years. They did it with a conservative offense that had only one true scoring outburst against the Chicago Bears and a defense only few of us saw coming (myself included). Although this team frustrated the hell out of us, it did nothing short of produce win after win.
After losing to the Denver Broncos on a fluke play, the team started to put together wins (albeit close on a number of occasions) building a 9-3 record and looking like it could make a true run at the Super Bowl. The defense had carried them each week making important play after important play, allowing an offense that barely could score until the outcome was in doubt to deliver the knockout punch. After getting shredded for 472 yards by the Houston Texans, the defense improved not only on the field but on the stat sheet, climbing into the upper echelon of total and run defense.
Going into those last four games, the Bengals had established an identity - that of a tough defense and strong running game, and appeared to be playing at their best. They had just come off of a streak of six games in which the defense held opponents to 235 yards and 11.5 points per game posting a 5-1 record heading to the final quarter of the season. Most soothsayers will tell you that shutting down the run (making opposing teams one dimensional in theory) is essential to winning. The Bengals defense did just that, holding opposing teams to just 66.6 rushing yards per game during the same stretch of games. However, during the final four games the Bengals defense started to show cracks as the total yards per game average ballooned to 325 yards per game while allowing 26 points per game, posting a dismal 1-3 record. The rushing defense also took a beating during the final four games as they allowed 148 yards per game.
Excitement level was running high going into the last four games of the season, considered the toughest portion of the year with back to back road trips to Minnesota and San Diego and rounding out the season with the New York Jets in the Meadowlands with a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs sandwiched in between. The Vikings proved to be formidable foes basically dominating the game. Against the Chargers, the usually reliable defense became unable to make a stop along with Shayne Graham failing to convert when the game was on the line. The Chiefs were able to move the ball effectively but turnovers helped dispel any chances of a win. Against the Jets, most of the Bengal starters played only a half a game which may have exposed the lack of depth on the defensive side. Even when the starters were playing they looked ineffective, sluggish and disinterested.
A team's ability to peak at the right time can lead them to not only ending the season favorably; it could lead to a deep run through the playoffs allowing them to satisfy the thirst for a championship. If a team starts the season sluggishly it does not mean that the finish can't be strong. This season the Bengals started out well for the first six games and then turned a corner that proved just how well they can play, only to fizzle for a stretch run where they had to continue playing their best heading into the playoffs.
The defense is what garnered the Bengals attention not seen since the team finished ninth in total defense in 2001. With their ability to stop the run and keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone, the Bengals looked as if they were headed to heights not seen since the 80's. However, the season is a grind with ebbs and flows that can affect a team in so many ways. When approaching the end of a season every team hopes to be playing their best. This season, the Bengals may have peaked at the wrong time of the year.