It took a while to get the report done, but here it is.
First, I want to note that there has been some back-and-forth trolling in the comments sections recently on this blog. Let's not do that. We can chat about our beliefs without insulting others. I mean, can't we all get along?
The win in San Diego was a big step for the franchise in several respects. First, this franchise has struggled on the west coast for its entire lifetime. And San Diego has been tough for us to beat there. Second, the loss of Mohammed Sanu was a really, really big deal. Finally D's were having to cover our other WR, and that was showing up in the results of explosive plays going to AJ Green. Third, Andy Dalton was having a really crappy day with lots of inconsistencies and a failure to pick up second and third receivers when his primary was covered. Fourth, the game was tight and wasn't going our way. Fifth, we were losing late in the fourth quarter. Sixth, when we did get back ahead, the Chargers made a nice drive that threatened to take the game into overtime in the last seconds.
Through all of those challenges, the Bengals rose to the occasion. They won on the west coast in San Diego. They found a way to make some plays and overcome some gaffes by the #2 WR. Dalton made the big plays when the money was on the line. The team found a way to snap out of the second half funk. They came back in the fourth quarter and then made a really nice stop on San Diego's last drive.
So before we move onto the categories, a big question. Marv Lewis said that this team is on the rise. I agree. How high can we go? Here's what I think. Right now I think the team could beat any team in the league. I'm not sure if we could consistently win away games in NE, Den, Hou & SF. Other than that, I think everyone else better be pretty worried about playing this team.
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. Is this still a unique season? Each weekend it seems to become more so. There is a lot of pressure here. We really can afford only to lose one of two games against the NFC East teams and none against Pitt or Balt. That may sound odd, so I'll explain. If we lose one to the NFC East and win the rest to finish at 10-6, then we'd beat Pitt in the tiebreaker even if they win the rest of their games (other than the one with us). We'd both be 10-6 and 3-3 in the division, but we'd have a better AFC Conference record. If we win the next three and then lose vs. Balt, our division record would have us losing to Pitt in the tiebreaker (if both at 10-6). What makes this season unique is that things were going really badly, but the team stepped up to respond when it still mattered and kept winning each week. Now we see that this team can do it, and the expectations will remain high. If the team can ride this streak into the post-season, it could get real crazy before all is said and done. However, it will all have to be done on the road, and that's another potentially tough challenge for a really young, unaccomplished team. The key to remember, however, is that you can only win one game at a time. If this team continues to focus everything it has into each game, this is going to be a lot more rewarding than 2011 was.
2. What was the lasting effect of Whitworth's stand against Oakland? When you get punched in the mouth but then hit back, everyone is empowered. Nobody on this team is taking crap from anyone now, and that showed in San Diego. When Rivers drove into the Red Zone at the end of both halves, he got a FG and an INT to show for it. When the O had a few costly turnovers, they managed to push a long drive and get an ugly score for the win. Whit's stand up play provided the proverbial intestinal fortitude (or "guts" for short) as a template for the rest of the season.
3. What are the CONSISTENT weaknesses on this team at week 14? I think we're back wondering about WR #2. Marvin Jones had a gaffe on the INT, but in the end we'll be really happy that he got this playing time in 2012. Give this guy a chance to get his feet wet and know that more depth at WR is crucial to longer term success. I think the interior OL might get pushed around a bit against larger DTs. The middle of the D (MLB and Safeties) are very average. Burfict has cooled down now that others have seen his film. At this point, however, there is no longer a gaping weakness.
4. How are the young guys doing this week? I look at undrafted CFAs like Burfict and Robinson and marvel at how much this team has gotten from them. Zeitler and Boling are really doing way above expectations at OGs. Orson Charles has done well in spots at TE. You might not count him as young, but Ced Peerman has proven me wrong in being more as a RB than most of the crowd thought he was. Mays has done a lot better when paired with a vet Safety. And the Fisher Price kids are killing it. I hope that they stay with Marvin Jones for a lot of snaps at #2 WR but that they keep Boom Herron on inactive for now. Jones has the skills and just has to get the jitters out of his system. The experience he will get will make a huge difference down the road.
5. Has the O lost a step (short-term and/or long-term) without Sanu? Yes in the short term. In the long term (which I view as next season) this may be a blessing because Jones and Whalen are now getting the snaps and maturation they need. On the intermediate level (which I view as late in this season and potentially the playoffs) we'll have to see how much Jones can make an impact to answer the question.
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
* Can they do it? You gotta believe now that they are half way there. Nobody swims half way across a lake and then turns back out of fear of not being able to make it the whole way. Gotta keep key guys healthy and keep the confidence up.
* What will be the biggest challenges to win out? This team is now playing against itself. We gotta have Dunlap stay consistent; Maualuga maintain his focus; and Reggie Nelson continue to play at a high level. We gotta have Dalton say on track; Green-Ellis continue to play on the edge of his capabilities; and Gresham avoid the mental errors. I think these are the six guys who are really clicking now and weren't hitting so well during the losing streak. If you want to throw a few more in, we might consider the need for Marvin Jones and Kyle Cook to contribute before all is said and done.
* Can they win a playoff game? If they enter the post-season with the steam they have now, they'll be tough to beat.
* Where does this take us for 2013? If we make it past the Mayan apocalypse, we might be feeling pretty confident in 2013. The second round Raider pick for Palmer will have us picking early on the second day. Again, we gotta get some guys signed soon, but things are looking up.