Finally getting to the computer for a review of the Browns-Bengals game in wild wind last Sunday. First before that, however, let me make note of the Thomas Howard death and point out my sadness and disappointment for a guy whose career essentially ended on a freak accident in practice early in the 2012 season. Just as quickly as the Bull, Vontaze Burfict, has become a sensation in Cincy, Thomas Howard was forgotten. Howard, a 6' 3", 240 LB who ran a 4.42 40, showed up here as a UFA in a 2011 season, easily replaced Keith Rivers, and was a huge factor in turning around the locker room culture in Cincy. He helped show how to be a pro as he was the team's leading tackler. How he died is a footnote, and we probably should reserve comment until we know all the details of why a guy would drive that fast in an urban area. For now I'll say and think nice things about the departed who did give us something very nice in our community.
The game Sunday was classic Mike Zimmer. After Andy Dalton played us into a corner, Zimmer's boys put the team back to front and center with play after play. I don't remember the exact stats except to say that Dalton's ESPN QB rating was something like a 3 (out of a 100), while the team had about 100 yards of O at halftime while having scored 31 points. That's unheard of in the NFL and illustrates how soundly the D dominated the Browns.
I'm still in Houston for another week and watched the game in little Victoria, Texas. They're pretty proud of Andy Dalton in these parts, but even his fans were cringing. "Nobody knows what is going on with his roller coaster," one fellow told me. We better get out the WD-40 quickly though.
For people like me who called for a falling sky after the Geno Atkins injury, it looks like the Bengals D has taken another body blow and has continued to move forward. And that is simply amazing.
Let's look at old and new Conclusions.
1. Sanu - impressive set of plays in 2nd Qtr that helped get momentum back. That throw on the double pass was literally unbelievable. He threw about 45 yards on a rope into a 2 foot window.
2. Chemistry / Leadership / Identity - Let's just say that this team has really shown a lot of each of these on the D side of the ball. On O it still holds that you have to have accomplishments to get any of these started, and the O continues to struggle.
3. AJ Green - He struggles against the top end CBs. Does he need a lot of work on his routes? Does he need more help getting quality chances? Or both?
4. TO Differential - Still causing a problem, but you see what happens when the situation goes on the positive. 31 points with 100 yards of total O at halftime. Wow!
5. Dalton, Dalton, Dalton - Can't understate what we've been saying all season. When summer camp started, we said that this season's outcome was on Dalton. It still is. The D already illustrated that it is good enough to get us to the playoffs, but it did that the past two seasons. Dalton is charged with being able to score 24+ points a game, limiting turnovers, and setting a good example of how to be a pro. Did anyone see the end of the Carolina-NE game last night? Tom Brady goes to press conference and takes the blame for the last pass and the loss. That's how a real pro does it and secures his place in the locker room. That builds confidence in teammates and sets the stage for getting everyone's best effort. Dalton has a lot to learn about this because, frankly, he strikes me still as very immature -- kinda a Ben Roethlisberger without all the ugly antics. He seems like a scared kid who isn't sure of himself - one week soaring and the next week sinking.
New 5 Conclusions
1. Dalton - There, I said it again. Time to call in Austin Powers and get Andy's Mojo back. This Brown game was exactly what I expected. The great CB Joe Haden sat in Purgatory and took away the corner routes to AJ while also being able to pilfer the quick slant stuff. Gruden needs to go early now to Baby Hawk on a slant from the other side, and we need to start working Jones, Sanu, Eifert, Gresham, and Bernard early and often to keep defenses honest. It would be stupid to say that the wind wasn't a factor. You just can't throw downfield into gale force winds, but let's not make excuses. Three weeks ago Dalton was AFC Offensive player of the week. Three weeks later he is just offensive. It's the Not For Long league folks, and the ship is out of port for Dalton. He's lucky as he has chances left, but it's starting to look like a rewind of 2012 where he had great games in the middle of the season and then stunk the place up to finish. I personally think that this latest 3-game dive illustrates that Dalton is NOT a guy you want to give 8-10% or more of your cap. If you're counting at home, that's $10-12 million per year. That makes no sense, and there's no way that Mike Brown would do that with a QB who is as inconsistent as Dalton has been. He will have to play out 2014 if all else stays remotely equal here, and then we'll see what happens. That nearly guarantees a QB in the 2014 draft for rounds 1-3. Some will scoff. You watch. Talk to me in May about it at rookie minicamp. I'll save the "told you so" for then. Meanwhile, I am pulling for Dalton and like him as a person. You win with people, so that is relevant (for those who want to wash out the emotion). But the QB still has to be consistent and needs to show leadership skills. Dalton is missing the boat and is running out of time.
2. Rest of O -- This is the Gruden section. If the D dominates, I guess we become a Woody Hayes type offense just simply running the ball to keep the clock going. Bill Parcells won a Super Bowl in New York doing that. There are CJ excuses floating out there. What's the latest theory? Move the OL around? Get another All-Pro WR to complement Green. Trade for Adrian Peterson. Whatever. The talent level here is about as good as it's gonna get on O, so Gruden has to make this work. Maybe the strategy will be to punt on 3rd down and utilize some quick kicks. I don't know, but the D and STs units are racking up more yards and points that the O right now.
3. STs - Just to say... that was something we've never seen on the punt team with two blocked kicks and plays coming from a bunch of rookies. Simmons has these guys back in tow.
4. Division Race - Time to crunch the numbers. Bengals 7-4 (5-3 Conf, 2-2 Div). Steelers, Ravens, Browns all 4-6. Steelers 3-4 Conf, 1-1 Div. Browns 3-4 Conf, 2-2 Div. Ravens 4-4 Conf, 2-2 Div. Division tiebreakers go (in order) by Head-to-Head, Div record, and Conf record before moving to more exotic tiebreakers. So as we noted prior, the finale at PBS with the Ravens stands to be the biggest game remaining. However, the team really needs to finish 3-2 or better to have the momentum and clarity to win a playoff game (something I thought was unthinkable two weeks ago). The team shouldn't look ahead, but we can. MN at home in late December should be a win. They suck and are out of the playoffs. Pitt at Heinz will be a tough game in December, but it's one that we have to win in the role of a team that says it can win in the playoffs. Balt at home to finish is a statement game and sets the stage to finally get Mike Brown a playoff win (i.e., to overcome the curse of Bo Jackson). So I'm gonna call those games the "must wins" at this point. A win in one of the other two (@ SD, Indy) alleviates one of these must wins, but the division games are most important. Every week is huge now for several reasons: 1) This team is changing its culture. To win without Hall & Atkins sets a huge statement about what this team can do; 2) The momentum for the playoffs starts about now. 3) Every week presents a chance for Dalton & Gruden to figure out the final missing element in what could still be a Super Bowl run. However, this team won't go far into the playoffs without an offensive punch. 4) Every win reduces the pressure to win the next week and brings a higher level of comfort and confidence.
5. Conference Race - With NE losing last night and playing #1 Den next Sunday, the Bengals could move into the #3 seed by next Monday. Then back-to-back wins @ SD and vs. Indy at PBS would slide us into the #2 seed. That's not a huge reach. More likely I see the team getting the #4 seed as the AFC North winner at 10-6 and hosting KC in the opening round. That would be a tough game against a KC team that is made for cold weather with a conservative O and a staunch D. It would be much nicer to slide to the #3 seed and get the pot luck team that gets the final WC spot. Right now that's the Jets or Dolphins both at 5-5. And the #2 seed? That's kinda pie in the sky but would give us a WC weekend bye and have us playing the highest remaining seed from WC weekend in the second round....prob Indy or NE who we both play at PBS in the 2013 regular season. If this team could win a playoff game, it would be huge for the franchise. Once you're in the tourney, who knows what can happen? Dreams start now, though, and they don't come true without real action.
I think the situation is starting to become pretty clear in Cincy. This win vs. Cleveland was huge. Added to the Raven loss in Chi and the Steeler win in Detroit, the home team is 2.5 up with 5 to play going into its bye. That means that if the team goes 3-2 to finish 10-6 that another AFC North team would have to win out and then get help to win the division on a tiebreaker. Since the Bengals are 5-0 at home it really isn't crazy to think that we can win at least 3 of the final five with a schedule that goes: Bye, @ SD, Indy, @ Pitt, MN, Balt. Of course, nothing is guaranteed either. But this team continues to say and do the right things on the field and in the locker room with respect to overall team culture. Michael Johnson is the latest to challenge non-believers to a throwdown. I'll think I'll pass on that one.
Things are really coming together on D and STs. The O is struggling with OL injuries and inconsistency from the skill positions. I have beaten this one to death, but we can't understate how strongly we have doubled down on Andy Dalton for 2012. And simply, he needs to wake up and smell the coffee, while Gruden needs to figure out a scheme that will consistently work for this guy and this unit. Fans struggle when they are told a different story every week. As the banner at PBS read last weekend: "Will the real Andy Dalton please stand up?".... before it's too late!