I am thirty years old. Born in August of 1979, I lived in Hamilton, Ohio until I was nine years old at which time we moved up here to the Mahoning Valley. The first year we lived as transplants to the geographical center between Cleveland and Pittsburgh was a fantastic year to be a fan of Cincinnati Sports. We had hardly moved into our house when we sat down in our new family room and watched the Bengals represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXIII. The next summer I gloated to all of my middle-school friends as the Cincinnati Reds swept the Oakland A's in the World Series.
After that, well, it hasn't been so great.
I hardly remember what it was like to be a fan of a successful football team. I frankly don't remember the Bengals' last playoff win at all. I was ten years old at the time, and that was twenty years ago.
Recently I compiled a decade recap of the Bengals' successes and failures throughout the past decade, which can be found here. I'll not rehash these points, but feel free to click the link if you didn't read it New Year's Day. It's a great indicator of where we've been compared to where we find ourselves less than sixteen hours from a playoff game kickoff.
Tomorrow at around three o'clock I am going to don my orange Maualuga jersey with a new undershirt, a short-sleeved black tee from Old Navy we picked up today that has a very large distressed "B" logo and the team name on the front (Between UC's horrific loss and the Bengals' "performance" last weekend, I feel that the bUCkeye State undershirt has lost its mojo). I will then hop in the truck and head off to Cortland to watch our Bengals play a football game in January in the NFL's championship tournament.
There are those who think that the Bengals don't stand a chance tomorrow, both from our fanbase and others. There are those who think that our boys will come out tomorrow and, through some unforseen chicanery, turn on the offensive jets (no pun intended) that we haven't seen since October 25th when Cedric Benson went ham against the team that drafted him and Carson Palmer did whatever he wanted through the air. The Bengals put a 45-spot up on the Bears that day and have gone into a state of hibernation since. Believe me, unless something amazing happens tomorrow our boys aren't going to throw any kind of switch that will make that kind of difference on our side of the scoreboard.
"But Craig," you may say, "are you saying that we will once more be one and done in these NFL playoffs?"
By no means am I suggesting that will be the case. There are plenty of reasons that we can look at our team and believe that they will prevail tomorrow on the heated FieldTurf of Paul Brown Stadium. Here are a couple.
1.) Cedric Benson will be on the field. Bernard Scott, as much promise as he has shown this year, isn't the guy that you are going to run into the teeth of the league's best run defense twenty-five times in a game. That guy would be one Cedric Benson. I hope to see a healthy dose of Bernard Scott (hey, how about a split-back formation Bob?), but far less of him than of Ced the Pred. He's going to be running hard and hungry, and he has been a huge difference-maker in the Bengals' offensive gameplan in 2009.
2.) Domata Peko. Secondarily, Chris Crocker/lack of Tom Nelson. The league's best rushing offense, lining up for the second time in six days against the Bengals defensive front tomorrow, will have two different players looking through their facemasks tomorrow than they saw last weekend. Consider this, before Peko went down to injury the only running back the Bengals had allowed to top 100 yards all year was an increasingly beastly Jerome Harrison. Yeah, the same Jerome Harrison who put up a near-300 yard rushing performance in the last quarter of the season. He's pretty good. Since Peko went down, well okay nevermind. They allowed 102 yards to Jamaal Charles in week 16 and we all know what happened last week. Bottom line is this: the Bengals' rushing defense is pretty damn good with or without Domata Peko and Chris Crocker, but they're decidedly better with those two players. They're going to be at full strength tomorrow and I'm looking forward to that.
Much has been said about the nature of these two teams, as a matter of fact our own Mojokong has said it quite eloquently over the past week. The Bengals and the Jets are two very old-school type football teams who do two things very well. They run the ball, and they stop the run. Assuming those two areas of the game come out mainly as a wash tomorrow afternoon, one has to assume the advantage lies with Cincinnati in the passing game due to the experience levels of one Carson Palmer and one Mark Sanchez. Much has been said around these parts about how critically important tomorrow's game will be for Palmer. He has a chance tomorrow to pick up where he left off after Knee-gate in early 2006; I don't believe he takes that lightly. I don't believe he will let tomorrow pass him by without the team's first playoff victory in two decades.
No, I don't believe that a bit. Perhaps he won't put up gaudy numbers the likes of which we saw in Week 7, but all season long he has gotten it done by whatever means was necessary. He has engineered game-winning drive after game-winning drive this season. A couple of times that victory was snatched from him due to a freak tip in Denver or an Andre Caldwell fumble here and there, but the bottom line is this.
When it needs done, Carson Palmer gets it done. He's been clutch all season long, and I can find no reason why that pattern will change just because it's the playoffs or just because we're playing those scary scary Jets (who by the way should have the short odds to win the whole shebang, did you hear?).
All that said, the bottom line is this: no matter what happens tomorrow, this club has made a step forward. It is now on the shoulders of every player and coach to make another and another, until we are a perennial playoff team and Super Bowl contender. With the sort of long-term improvements this team has made (i.e. excellent defense and good running game), the pieces are in place for the Bengals to be in the picture for a few years now. Let's not squander that by being stupid, shall we?
So let's all go to bed and get some sleep, knowing that tomorrow brings the playoffs. Tomorrow brings the playoffs that in early 2010 include a team called the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hey Mr. Brown, this feels good. Can't we see if we can arrange this again next year?
Too excited to sleep,
A Pragmatic Bengals Fan