When have the Bengals played their best this year? Against weak teams asking to get crushed? Of course not. They play their best football in high-pressure situations against strong opponents. Drives late in the fourth quarter gave us the "cardiac cats" - a nickname that would still be around had they won the San Diego game. We also saw losses that left us all shaking our heads ("The Raiders? Really?) Week in, week out we saw them play up (and down) to their opponents based on the pressure of the situation and this week was no different.
What pressure, exactly, was on the team? The only thing they had to play for was to determine their seed and opponent. They're going to the playoffs no matter what. They're playing the first round at home no matter what. As soon as they decided to sit Benson (and questionable starters coming off of injuries) the coaching staff made their intentions loud and clear. A win was not important to them. If that weren't enough, the playcalling supplimented the message. Minimal blitzes. No unbalanced lines in front of the run. They were holding back and the players knew it.
I'm not saying the players dogged it or threw the game - no self-respecting football player would want to be embarrassed the way they were last night - but the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals respond to one motivation and one motivation alone: Pressure. Last night, playing in a virtually meaningless game, they had none. And they played that way.
This weekend, however, the tables are turned. Sure, every team has pressure to win in the playoffs, but throw in the embarassment of last night into the mix and the Bengals are going to respond accordingly. Currently, Vegas has the Bengals winning by 2 1/2 - not quite an underdog, but I'll take it. Nobody - not even their fans - expect the Bengals to go deep into the playoffs, which is one of the reasons why it's a real possibility.