The Bengals dismantled the Vikes, and it wasn't even close. I particularly liked seeing our backup CBs essentially shut down Jerome Simpson. No doubt we made a good decision on letting Simpson fly west for a big deal with the talent poor Viking WR corps. Andy Dalton again came off a tough game with a top end performance that earned him consideration for the FedEx Air NFL Player of the Week. The STs still struggled in kickoff coverage, but there was no complete catastrophe as occurred in Pittsburgh. Now we're all wondering several things. Can we play well in a division game after being inconsistent during this season in those games? Are we on a roll or a roller coaster? Can we beat whoever shows up at PBS first for the playoffs? Can we win on the road in the playoffs? We're going to look at these things this week in our Conclusions.
5 Prior Major Conclusions
1. TO Differential: Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: from here forward, the TO differential will probably determine the winner in whatever games we have left this season. We snatched 3 INTs and had a sack/strip/recovery, while we game up a fumble. We yielded two quick scores from the turnovers, and the Vikes scored their first half TD shortly after their fumble recovery. Protecting the rock is the #1 factor at this point in the season. +3 vs. Minnesota helped us win by 28.
2. Dre Kirkpatrick: I just don't have a good feel about Dre at this point. He looked really bad on the false bite of the down-out-and-down that went for 6. He interfered on Jerome Simpson in the second quarter although the refs blew the call when Iloka made a fine pick. Otherwise, analysts reported that Kirkpatrick only yielded one completion, but I don't trust his play and feel that our fate in the playoffs will be tightly aligned with our ability to get Newman back healthy.
3. Andy Dalton: After waffling much of the middle part of this season, I have flip-flopped again and think the time is optimal to re-sign Dalton to a long-term deal this off-season. I think he'll get $50 mil for 5 years - maybe a little more. I really feel that he is improving and that his modest price will be a key in managing the salary cap moving forward. As much as I have lambasted Dalton's arm, he leads the league in 40+ yard receptions and is 6th in 20+ yard receptions. Some of that comes from short passes and good runs; some comes from the immense talent of A.J. Green; but some is due to Dalton and his will to become better. Yes, he has struggled some with top end defensive coverage, weather, away games, and consistency in his accuracy. Overall, however, he now is in the top half of the league at his position and could rise if he continues to find and work his niche. When the season started, we were looking for Dalton to raise his efficiency to around 65% and his TD:INT ration to 2:1 or better. While the efficiency started better, Dalton struggled a bit in middle games that have him at 62.2% at present. With 550 attempts his 2.8% deficiency in this target represents about 15 completions or one a game. I think Dalton can and will get one completion per game better next season. With 31 TD passes and 16 INTs, Dalton's ratio is right where it needs to be. That may sound odd, but he needs to have a certain number of INTs in order to push the ball down the field appropriately. It would be extremely difficult to argue with a season in which Dalton is likely to break season records for passing yardage and TD passes, but just remember not to go overboard on statistics. Vince Lombardi used to say that statistics are for losers. I agree with that when statistics are used in an attempt to defend bad outcomes. At the same time stats are a good source of measuring how well one's performances in the long run measure up to his peers. Dalton is measuring well in that respect.
4. Injuries: The nicks are adding up, and one gets the feeling that the conference and Super Bowl champs may very well be the team that can stay healthy through the next six weeks. Right now the known injuries over the season break down as follows: DEFENSE - DL: Atkins, Geathers both out for the season; Dunlap with 2-3 concussions; Still with an elbow injury that kept him out a month; LB: Lamur, Porter both out for the season; Maualuga missed a month with a knee injury and concussion; Burfict has had two concussions; Harrison had a recent concussion; DB: Hall, Mays out for the season; Newman trying to get back from a knee injury; Kirkpatrick has had two concussions; Iloka has had two concussions; Ghee has had a concussion; OFFENSE - RB: Green-Ellis had a broken hand; WR: Hawkins missed half the season with an ankle injury; Jones and Sanu have had some moderate ankle and leg injuries; TE: Eifert has had a shoulder and hamstring injury knocking him out a couple of weeks; OL: Boling is out for the year; Zeitler has missed several games with an ankle injury; Smith has had some ankle sprains; Whit had some early knee issues and a recent concussion; STs: Huber out for the season. We have to remember that some of this stuff is additive and that we have still been lucky at QB, RB, and WR so far, have retained great depth on O (outside of the QB position), and are spread a bit thin all over on D. It would be short-sighted not to also mention that the loss of Huber's punting is a big deal.
5. Consistency: I'd have to say that the team has been pretty consistent since the 2nd half of the Ravens game. To win it all, you have to be 99% consistent (meaning that any small glitch must be immediately compensated to retain playoff life). Where are we vulnerable? I think that the coverage teams have struggled the last few weeks, while we really don't know what we have with Shawn Powell right now. On D our pass rush has not been as dominant as it was in 2012 (even before Atkins was hurt), but Zimmer knows how to dial that up situationally - my guess is that Zimmer has alternated the amount of pressure more this season to keep opposing QBs less able to develop a standard approach to beating our scheme. Certainly the CB coverage is not as tight now as it was with Hall starting and Pacman in the nickel roll, but Jones has played better as a full-time starter. Even when we have lost our joker WILL LB twice in Lamur and Mays, we have gotten better than expected play from Maualuga and Vinnie Rey - so I'm not sure whether we're vulnerable or just "different" in that position. On O we know that we struggle when the opposition doubles Green with a top end CB if we can't establish throwing pressure on the other side of the field or more dominance in the run. Our TEs have been inconsitent, and that could hurt us in a clutch situation. Finally, the OL has struggled in run blocking with Whit as the LT with that being somewhat corrected when Whit slides to LG. I think the upgrade comes from getting more size into the middle of the OL which counterbalances the youth and inexperience of the OGs and the general struggles of center Kyle Cook. With Collins juggling both OT spots and the bench, one might imagine that he will be prone to an occasional failure when put in a tough situation without a lot of prep. This is a lot to digest, but I think that we all get the idea that this team will battle but can't be expected to dominate when we hit top end playoff talent and have to play on the road. In other words, it will be interesting.
5 New Conclusions
1. Division Winners, What Next?: The goals this team mentions are Division champs, 8-0 at home, and Super Bowl champs. So what's next is a win at home vs. Baltimore this Sunday to reach our second goal. The goal that fans and some media mention is the first playoff win in Mike Brown's ownership after dad Paul's death. We can end up 2nd, 3rd, or 4th seed depending on what we do this Sunday as well as the outcomes of the NE-Buff and Indy-Jax games. If we stay put at #3, we'll host the #6 seed in the Wild Card game. That could be anyone of the following teams: Balt, Mia, SD, or Pitt. At #4 we'd host KC in the Wild Card game. At #2 we'd have a WC bye and play the highest seed to advance from the AFC WC games. To win the Super Bowl requires a review that would take a lot more time than we have but requires a tight mindset, ability to win away games, and luck with the injury situation. We have the mindset but need improvement in the last two areas.
2. Roller Coaster Ride: Has it been a roller coaster? We have lost 5 games. We played poorly in 4 of them (Cle, Mia, Balt, Pitt) and struggled for consistency in the season opener. The teams that made us look bad had a lot of familiarity - three division foes and coordinator Kevin Coyle (Miami) seemed to have the Kryptonite on us. All these games were on the road too. So there is a formula for this that we'll discuss below.
3. Why the Home-Road Disparity?: As much as we want to say that we're a "veteran team," this disparity is evidence otherwise. I want to blame this on the coaches some, but I'm just not sure that's fair. How about the three road games we won? Buffalo, Detroit, and San Diego. Those were three close games in which we battled and pulled them out late. Nugent won two with walk-off kicks, and we won the SD game by really grinding the ball on the ground. Dalton played well in all three of those games as well while struggling a bit in the 5 losses. So the keys are to run the ball well, keeping Dalton in a groove, and battling well throughout the entire game.
4. Where are We Vulnerable?: From prior discussion we have noted that vulnerability seems to come when the D takes away AJ Green, while we're unable to counterbalance with other weapons. We are going to see this again at some time in the playoffs. I think the heavier OL with Whit at LG is the answer to this problem as we're better able to run with that alignment thereby creating more offset for the passing losses.
5. Where do We Thrive?: This occurs when Zimmer is on his game keeping the QB off balance, when the STs do not give up explosive plays, and when Dalton stays in his rhythm. In such games it seems that the Bengals are unbeatable.
We have at least two more games in this season. Hopefully more. Now is time to pull it all together. Who would have thought after the Hall and Atkins injuries that we'd still have such a great opportunity to win big? Maybe a few out there, but not a whole lot (if you're all being honest). Merry Christmas!!!