No one said it'd be easy. The AFC North is unbearable to most. The defenses will scare you. Baltimore is a meat grinder. Pittsburgh is a street fight with chains. To hang in those kind of circles, Cincinnati had to be ruthless and bloodthirsty themselves, but each time against the big dogs, they flinched first and took their respective wallops. Had it not been for the heroics of AJ Green when it mattered most against Cleveland, many would be cashing in their Bengal chips right about now. Meddle was tested, lessons were learned. The measuring stick was brutal within the four-game divisional stretch and firmly established the respective roles of the pack. For now, the Bengals are still the "somedays".
Because the Bengals accomplished two honorable comebacks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, we fans all agreed with one another that it proved our team was only a play or two away from actually beating the bastards, but then the Steelers squashed them like bug in the rematch and forced that tired but justified yelling of uncle once more. Oh, the frustration.
And they aren't a bad team. They really are close to shoving divisional fixtures out of the way. Even during a rough patch, the characters on this team have remained calm. The program still appears sound despite a rash of losing. I'm still impressed.
The offense struggled, but not mightily, during the last four games. Their scheme is present—you can see how the pieces are supposed to work—but the group as a whole are not locked into place. Jay Gruden, Andy Dalton, the line and the receivers are still working on attaining perfect harmony—and it may never happen—but at least good philosophy is in place. That kind of conceptual foundation allows for logical adjustments within play-calling and style of offense. The Bengals have to view this past quarter as a minor failure on the type of tweaks they made, but the smaller successes of incorporating Baby Hawk and increasing Jermaine Gresham's presence could set up a much better December.
Hawk looks like a terrific slot receiver. He's quick, apparently runs good routes, and has been reliable as hell. Dalton likes him and I like him, especially on third down. Gresham is shaping up to be the bruiser we envisioned on draft day. He boxes out on passes and goes up strong to get catches. A grown-ass man. Then there is the skyrocket, AJ Green. This man is truly outta sight with the things he can do, but his best ability is to set his feet, leap above everyone else, comfortably come down with the ball and casually turn up field for YAC. He has already become one of the biggest deep-threats in the league and has also shown the ability to catch the slant in traffic. The superlatives are endless with this one and his potential is as vast as space itself, but to be fair, it was his false start in Pittsburgh that erased a touchdown and doomed the Stripes from there on out in that game. Finally, something he can improve on.
Jerome Simpson, though, is still not focused enough to be great or even all that reliable. His wild inconsistencies continue to frustrate me and he is a better blocker than anything else. He had a nice game in Baltimore when Green was out, but he is the fourth option at best on this team.
Overall the offense was competitive enough to win three outta four games this past stretch. And while special teams shit the bed in that stinker in Pitt, it has been the defense that has been the biggest letdown.
I don't want to be too rough on these guys. They are hard workers who do the best they can. I just don't think their best is good enough sometimes. Zim had these guys mobbing to the ball on every carry. Players were wrapping up and gang tackles were a regular occurrence. Early on, life was good, but without Carlos Dunlap, they've lacked the teeth necessary to enter into the tough-guy defense conversation. His absence is sharp and losing starting corners has only compounded the issue. Aside from the motor-head Geno Atkins, the vaunted front-four rotation of the Bengals looks tame and average again and it must improve in the last quarter of the season for the Bengals to have meaningful success in January.
I sense the team is getting tired and that's no good if I'm right. Tackling in the cold is a decision not an instinct. There are parts of a linebacker's brain that questions the motive of tackling in the cold. Your hands hurt, your knees don't want to move but you have to bring down this running back that just won't stop. With the new collective bargaining agreement, teams can't practice with pads this late in the season, so you can't really work on tackling throughout the week. Whether this preserves players or softens them up is a valid debate as bad tackling has cropped up recently in many cities. If fatigue does play a part in this discussion of tackling, then three home games in the last quarter can only help. Either way, tackling is basic and necessary and Cincinnati doesn't have the offensive prowess to afford arm flails and body bumps.
As a whole, it was a bad stretch but not a back-breaker. The odds of a divisional sweep weren't good this year and a couple of losses were expected, but the execution faltered from games 9-12. I won't go as far to say that the Bengals beat themselves, but I will say they didn't help their own cause in big games. If this team can put together a surge of smart, clean play like they demonstrated earlier this season, they will be fine. They have a few cupcakes left on the schedule and winding up in the postseason is still very real as they remain in the drivers seat of a wild-card birth, but improvements must be made in all three phases, as well as adjusting to injuries better, in order to roll into the playoff party this year.
There are two sides to the mini-wheat on this one for me. The fan in me thinks the Who-Deys will rally strong, buck up and be tough, and roll over these clowns to finish out the year, but the analyst in me sees youth, fatigue and injury eating away at a playoff season. The Bengals making it defies conventional thinking and not because of the franchise: a rookie quarterback on a team missing key defensive stars in an impossible division while battling four other wild-card teams with the same record typically translates to a letdown. So there you have it. Boldly spelled out in writing.
I don't think the Bengals will make the playoffs, but will hope like hell that they do.