Ding-dong. Did you hear that? It wasn't midnight sounding but rather 11:00 pm. Bengals pretty much have to win the last three to get into the playoffs now. Here is the scenario:
* AFC North: Baltimore, up 2 games with 3 to play, only needs to win 1 game to clinch the division. They finish by hosting the Broncos and the Giants before coming to Cincy. The only way the Ravens blow this lead is by losing all three while Cincy or Pittsburgh win all three. Unlikely.
* AFC Wildcard: Indy is up on Pittsburgh and Cincy by 2 games and finishes at Hou, at KC and then hosting Hou. They would have to lose all three to give Pitt or Cin a chance to move to the 1st WC spot. Pitt is tied with Cincy at 7-6 for the 6th WC spot, and both teams are up on the Jets by a game. The Jets finish at Tenn, home vs. SD and then at Buff. Incredibly, if the Jets win out and the Bengals and Steelers both lose one game, there is a strong chance the Jets would get the 6th WC spot. Pittsburgh goes to Dallas next week before hosting the Bengals and the Browns to close. We go to Philly this Thursday followed by a trip to Pittsburgh and then the finale at PBS with Baltimore. I left Miami out of the discussion here, but they become relevant if they can beat SF today. They finish by hosting Jax & Buff before going to NE.
You can work yourself into a frenzy here, but just realize that the Bengals still will get no less than the last WC spot if they win out. Anything less than a 3-0 finish will probably not be good enough. So it has come down to one and done for this team, and I'm worried about the injury report with Maualuga, Burfict and Hall all getting dinged up today (and maybe some others).
We've been riding a high with wins over mediocre performing opponents. Today the Cowboys weren't much better, but neither were we. Let's discuss:
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. Where are we now? As much as the loss is a disappointment, we end up in the same spot if we win out. That's the last Wild Card spot. No reason to be angry. Pack up the bags and go look at the tape. Dallas didn't run the ball at all, didn't stop our running attack, didn't dominate in special teams and didn't have a lot of explosive plays. This game was lost on bad play calling (not enough runs, which Dallas couldn't stop) and a failure to put the game out of reach in our multiple chances. If you look at the stats, you'll quickly note that Dallas won the game on much better 3rd down efficiency and by shutting down AJ Green.
2. What are/were the weaknesses? I want to say that bad play selection was the dagger. There was too much passing on 1st down when Dallas failed to show that they could stop the run. When you're up by 9 with a quarter to play and your opposition can't stop the run, you run the ball. That's not a hard one to figure out, but the Bengals blew that one today. The other thing was the failure to get Tony Romo off the field on 3rd downs. He made a lot of clutch throws and is a great player. Now nobody here will doubt that much. The third weakness showed in Dalton's mental errors: a bad INT; holding the ball too long on a couple of sacks; failing to establish continuity with the game on the line. Given the sum average of the Offense's play the last two weeks, this team won't contend well for a playoff win on the road even if they make it. Nobody wants a re-run of the Houston route over us last year.
3. Young guys' performances: I think Marvin Jones did a nice job, and everyone else contributed. This was a close loss to a talented team but was one that should have been a "W." Dallas showed in the end that they had a stronger drive to win it, and that might be something that comes with age and tradition.
4. The challenges of winning out, Part 2: We discussed this last week. The one thing that went downhill was Dalton's play. Dallas managed to confuse him and forced him into a lot of throwaways, coverage sacks and poor throws. Dalton's inability to get into the endzone on 3 or 4 Red Zone trips also was a difference in the game.
5. Can they do it? It comes down still to one game at a time. The short week leading up to Philly will be tough because I'm guessing that we'll have some significant injuries after this game. Philly has nothing to lose and managed to upset Tampa Bay on the road today, so things have suddenly changed from the momentum bus we were riding. If we can get past Philly, we'll have 10 days to prepare for the Steelers. Don't worry about them because they'll be ready. And Pittsburgh is a tough place to go in December. And then we have the Ravens who have beaten us the last four times we've played. From a probability standpoint, I'd give us a 75% chance of beating the Eagles, 50% chance of beating the Steelers and 40% chance of beating the Ravens. So my odds of us winning out are about 15%. This is where relative greatness is defined. When a team has to win them all and loses, it defines itself. This franchise has defined itself for 20+ years under Mike Brown as a loser when the chips are down, and that showed again today. I'd be happy if the odds to win out were higher, but that doesn't really matter. Now the Bengals have to win every game they play or they are done. I still think they can do it, but they better regroup quickly.
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
* Injuries: I saw Maualuga and Burfict take some bad hits along with Hall and Michael Johnson. Peerman is out. Cook had a couple of big penalties and isn't back to 100%. Gresham played well despite his hammie injury. Marvin Jones took a bang in the head. We'll have to wait and see whether any of these are serious.
* Pass D: This was the Achilles today. We could not contain Romo on 3rd Down, and the Cowboys tore us up down the stretch with conversion after conversion when only one stop would have made a huge difference. Dallas' OL is not that stout, so the Bengals DL just couldn't make the plays down the stretch while the DBs could not stop the deep crossing patterns that killed us in the 4th Qtr.
* Play Selection: Gruden's play calling was terrible. Sorry, but it was. You don't have a RB go 12-89 and not feature him when you're up 9 with a quarter to play.
* AJ Green: He's now officially in a slump. He dropped a TD pass and a deep 3rd down conversion that both may have made the difference in the game.
* This is it: Now there is no margin for error. I just don't think this team has enough leaders to set the tone. There isn't an air of meanness on D, and the Offense has lacked the ability to maintain momentum the last two weeks. Dalton lacked fire today. Nobody on the D stepped up when it was needed. Hope they can get it turned back around pretty quickly.