At first it may have felt as if the stroke of midnight signaled the season’s vanishing hopes along with all the other ghosts and ghouls on Halloween night following the Bengals’ 22-20 overtime loss in Miami. Our battered team was unable to survive yet another hard-knocking game as the tolls of an extremely physical first half to the season began catching up.
We lost our best defensive player to injury probably for the season only two weeks removed from losing our other best defensive player to a season-ending injury, and all that coming into Thursday night with three other players out due to injuries sustained the week before. Even with 10 days to rest we will likely still be smarting, and as a bone-breaking division game looms next week at Baltimore followed by a visit from the rival Browns, our 2-1/2 game lead in the AFC North could quickly and easily find itself in jeopardy. For the talented Bengals, the playoffs remain a probable result in the face of a softening schedule, but it may be hard to keep those Super Bowl aspirations aflame in light of the recent rash of major injuries.
However, Bengals fans should not be scared to keep the high hopes alive. This is a team that is equipped to handle major setbacks, and I believe the pieces are all still in place to contend. Atkins may be down, but the ever-steady Domata Peko remains and there is a reason that we invested consecutive high draft picks in Brandon Thompson and Devon Still, both of whom have yet to see significant extended action. Vontaze Burfict continues to play out his mind for the position group hit hardest by injury. Although Leon Hall is gone for the season, we can’t forget that he is backed by a trio of first round draft picks, among other promising veterans. And guys like James Harrison and Margus Hunt continue to see their own roles expand every week. Otherwise, the offense displayed great patience and resilience from Giovani Bernard in particular and, though he committed four turnovers, Andy Dalton, who was sensational on third down. Turn a few dropped wide-open passes into catches, or reverse a questionable downfield holding call, and who is to say that game wouldn’t have been won? We still had multiple chances to win the game despite unloading a full magazine of rounds into our collective foot.
This is still a team that will find ways to wind ugly. I believe I saw enough on Halloween Eve to retain faith that the Bengals can continue to compete at the highest level. And give credit to the Dolphins, who executed a great game plan and fought to the end. We got a lot more tricks than treats last night, but the most prized treats are reserved for those who remain steady, patient, and prepared. Super Bowl or bust -- nothing has changed for this fan.