It's been a rough month for the Bengals. And, honestly, with four straight games against AFC North opponents, it was expected to be a struggle. Unfortunately, by winning only one of the four divisional games in the past month, the Bengals have dug themselves quite a hole. Instead of taking a stranglehold of the division and setting themselves up nicely for a playoff run, they have seemingly regressed and just don't have the same swagger that they did when they won five straight through October.
We knew that these past four games "would separate the men from the boys", so to speak. Unfortunately, the Bengals still look to be stuck in fifth grade. This is especially true after the absolute debacle that ensued on Sunday. They were outplayed in every aspect of the game by their rivals and were shown what a perennial AFC powerhouse looks like. The loss on Sunday was by a larger margin than their other four losses combined. We're not inside the locker room, so we don't know what their confidence level is at after being beaten by four touchdowns.
But, we've seen a different character attribute with this Bengals team this year. Seemingly insurmountable halftime leads by the opposition have been wiped away with ease. Even when the Bengals got back into the game Sunday, cutting the lead to 21-7 midway through the second quarter, didn't you think that that would be the beginning of their comeback? They've been uncharacteristically clutch this season, becoming one of 2011's highest-scoring fourth quarter teams. And now, barely clinging to the AFC's sixth seed, their backs are against the wall.
How will they respond to the pressure? It's tough to say--especially in the wake of such a crushing loss. Most every Bengal team over the past twenty years would fold up their tents and call it a season. The scary thing is that these epic meltdowns have occurred under Marvin Lewis. Every time in recent history that the Bengals have sniffed around the playoffs, it's ended in disaster.
We call the 2005 Wild Card playoff game an aberration because of an unfortunate and cheap hit to Carson Palmer, never giving the team a fair chance to compete. Then the following season, needing to win just one game to have another shot at redemption, they lost three in a row and ended 8-8. Even in the Cinderella season of 2009, the team backed into the playoffs and sputtered against the Jets. Each one of these instances showed that this team wasn't able to handle the pressure that came with success.
And now, this very young team, that has surpassed every preseason expectation, is at a crossroads. Will they become like every other Bengals team in the past couple of decades and whither under the intensity? Or will they embody the comeback spirit and finish their unexpected run at the playoffs, shattering the national Bengals stereotype.
This Sunday will say a lot about this team and its coach. The fact is that good teams learn from a terrible loss and take it out on their next opponent. Conventional wisdom says that this week's game is as good as any to rebound. The Texans come in to Cincinnati starting their third string rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates. He won't have his Pro Bowl wide receiver in Andre Johnson to throw to. They've also lost their best defensive player, Mario Williams, for the season. Yet, they have overcome it all and are still 9-3.
Obviously, this game will have major implications for the rest of the Bengals' season. More importantly, it will show us fans the true state of this team's psyche. The Bengals' roster is full of players that came from successful college programs and are accustomed to winning. The majority of them haven't been around to see the failures of past Bengals teams. I don't know if that will have a direct effect on the way this team performs from here on out. What I do know is that good teams pull themselves off of the mat, put their heads down and get it done. Bad and/or fragile teams put their tails between their legs and call it a season. Past Bengals teams have done the latter. The 2011 squad has a chance to break the cycle and it begins Sunday.