Earlier this week Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton wisely echoed his head coach's perspective on Pro Football Talk that Cincinnati intends to treat their regular season finale against the Baltimore Ravens like any other game this season. Why would Cincinnati risk the injury factor; one severe knee injury could dampen any postseason dreams of glory. A glory defined by a symphony of drafts, iterations and revisions that celebrates the journey with an explosive payoff, ten years in the making. A masterpiece with Marvin Lewis as the conductor watching his audience wipe their eyes with a shade of red and smiles that stretch beyond the ear of Who Dey shouts.
So what are the Bengals thinking?
"We’re treating this just like every other week," Dalton told Erik Kuselias. "We’re going out and we’re preparing to win the game and it’s going to be like any other week. We are playing for some momentum. The playoffs start next week so for us we want to come out and play our best and carry that momentum into the playoffs."
Ah, yes. The all-powerful, yet unseen and volatile, "momentum". One spark sets it off. A turnover on defense, a massive gain on offense, the unexpected becoming the material result of victory. Dalton's conclusive study based on Cincinnati's recent history, accurately explores the simple need for change, a recurring theme which could
Jon Kitna had replaced Carson Palmer by the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs during the regular season finale in 2005. Made sense at the time, considering Cincinnati viewed the game not unlike the preseason. Yet Cincinnati hadn't secured their seeding yet and the other related scenarios prior to the game went down like this: Had the Bengals beaten the Chiefs or the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, Cincinnati would have secured the No. 3 seed, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. If they lost and the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins, the Bengals would have then dropped to the No. 4 seed, and hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars. Starters were progressively pulled from the game, laughing with jolly shoulder slaps during a "meaningless" contest which marked the beginning of a daydream that ended with the Super Bowl. The Chiefs eventually won the game 37-3 and Miami beat the Patriots 28-26, locking the Bengals into the No. 3 seed.
Yet the momentum Cincinnati built towards the end defied the very existence of the nondescript. The Bengals needed a game-winning field goal over the (6-10) Cleveland Browns in Week 14, lost by ten points to the Buffalo Bills in Week 16 and offered no resistance against the Chiefs to conclude their regular season. Coasting into the postseason? Yes. Pittsburgh knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in the first round, with help from a devastating knee injury and an alleged locker-room brawl, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
The cohesiveness of the team shattered, as did the equally important confidence of a Bengals squad still viewed by many as the best Marvin Lewis team of his era. No offense was as explosive or defense as dynamic and opportunistic as the 2005 squad, finally being challenged today with a revised iteration that could be viewed as Lewis' masterpiece in 2012 and beyond.
After insulting the sensibilities of NFL experts by sweeping the AFC North and clinching a postseason birth four years later, the Bengals entered their Sunday Night regular season finale in 2009 against the New York Jets having already locked up the No. 4 seed -- they could have moved up to No. 3 but the Patriots had already beaten the Texans, allowing New England to secure that seed. Most starters played the first half (Cedric Benson sat) on a frozen Meadowlands turf with Carson Palmer completing only one pass on 11 attempts for zero yards. Remember that? Of course you do. God, I remember that. It was horrifying. The Jets beat the Bengals 37-0.
Momentum again was the spoiled milk of the postseason, with Cincinnati losing three of their final four regular season games, and were eventually knocked out of the playoffs during a rematch against the New York Jets in the first round. Note for future reference. If you lose a game by 37 points, you're not establishing momentum against the same team the following week who is thriving on confidence. It was a dreadful two weeks, with uncertainty clouding our minds and certainty brimming inside the Jets locker room.
Cincinnati entered Week 17 last year needing to beat the Baltimore Ravens or face uncontrolled scenarios from other teams. The latter happened when the Ravens beat Cincinnati, the Dolphins beat the Jets and the Chiefs beat the Broncos, giving the Bengals the No. 6 seed. Yet once against they had no momentum entering the playoffs, having lost five of their final eight regular season games. The Texans knocked Cincinnati out of the first round.
It's frustrating because momentum isn't measured with statistics, philosophy or strategy. It's the accumulation and combination of success, confidence and, well, karma.
Unlike previous seasons with the Bengals entering the playoffs, Cincinnati's squad this year, that masterpiece we referred to earlier, has won six of the past seven games, clinching a postseason berth against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that faced their own must-win game against the Bengals. Momentum. Karma. It's fusing together right now and Andy Dalton wants it to continue.
Bengals starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth reflects on the 2009 and 2011 teams.
"I don’t think we had momentum to be honest with you. We had a great start to our season but didn’t play well in the second half. We held on," Whitworth said. "Both those teams. Last year kind of the same thing. This one is in a totally different situation. We let things slip out of our hands early but second half of the year we got momentum.
"The Jets and Giants have done it. Truth is they are getting better and playing every week and the others are resting. It's better to have guys taking snaps than guys who are not. Keep going and having the hot hand can help you."