For Part One of the Season Recap,click here.
It would still have to be earned of course; the Bengals knew the division wouldn't just lay down in a fit of confusion and simply hand the AFC North over to them. The Steelers were beaten and Baltimore awaited, but a trip to Cleveland was sandwiched in between the two and many sensed a trap-game in the making; they were nearly right.
It shouldn't have been close. Once Robert Geathers skirted down the sideline and into the endzone after grabbing a stripped fumble and giving the Bengals a two touchdown lead, that should have been the end to the excitement that day. It would have been a three-possession lead as well, but on the Bengals' first drive Brad St. Louis snapped the ball high on a field-goal attempt and that grotesque sea-monster, Sean Rogers, blocked his first kick of the day. It proved to be another long day for special teams.
The Bengals saw their lead vanish and fell behind 17-14 after four horrendous second-half possessions: a botched pump-fake that forced a punt, a fumbled kickoff, then two three-and-outs. The Browns kicked another field goal before something finally went right.
It was third and 13 and things were looking rough for Cincinnati in the Dawg Pound. There were just over six minutes left and a loss would have been painfully sobering to the Bengals and their supporters. A seam route to Chris Henry gave the Bengals a first down and a burst of fresh air to breathe. Carson Palmer ended the drive with an improvised touchdown toss to Andre Caldwell across the middle of the end-zone to tie the game with minimal time left on the clock. All St. Louis had to do was not screw it up and the Bengals would win.
Overtime was a maddening affair that came down to another harrowing moment, which saw Palmer scramble on fourth and 10 and give Cincinnati a chance to end the tie with a minute remaining. Shayne Graham certainly got the kick off, but whether it went through the uprights remains in doubt. Regardless, the kick was ruled good and the Bengals barley escaped.
Heading into Episode III of the Bengals saga through the AFC North, Cincinnati were rightfully feeling pretty good. They gained an advantage on two of the three other divisional teams and Baltimore was next on the schedule. The team at that point showed physical toughness, the ability to perform in the clutch and were really flying high in that early stretch of the season.
Then Mike Zimmer's wife, Vikki, died suddenly and there was nothing to feel good about anymore. Nonetheless, the team rallied to support Zim and the affect of that support will likely never be lost to those who lived it.
The enriched relationship that Mike Zimmer and his players cultivated during the season, and especially in the week his wife passed, from the outside appeared to transcend that of the typical player/coach relationship and into the realm of true friendship between men. The fact that he signed a contract extension to stay in Cincinnati within days of the Bengals' last game---when his name was hot in the coaching rumor-mill no less---to me justifies the claim that he shares a special level of respect with this group and simply has no desire to coach anyone else right now. In today's day and age, I think that's a beautiful thing.
The game itself became secondary but it was still scheduled and would be played, personal tragedy or not. The players predictably dedicated the game to Vikki Zimmer's honor and returned to the locker room three and a half hours after they'd left it, tearful and euphoric from another thrilling win.
Overcoming Baltimore is always a brutish task. With the Bengals entrenched in their run-first attack that fans had begun to accept a little bit, and Baltimore experimenting with its new offense that featured Flacco throwing more than a year before, the wizards were unsure of what to expect.
What they saw was another close call, but a victory all the same. Aided by two crucial Raven penalties in the last drive (and a slightly overthrown deep ball to Mark Clayton on the preceding Baltimore drive), the Bengals again overcame enough obstacles in a battle of wills to avoid the fatal mistake and force the opposition into one of their own. Even with another St. Louis meltdown on the Bengals' opening drive, a pick-six thrown to Ed Reed early in the first half, and a missed tackle to allow Ray Rice to rumble to pay-dirt, Cincinnati still pulled it together in the end to give Zimmer and his family a speck of happiness in an otherwise troubled time.
The team pulled through a tough week and so did Zimmer, each feeling better about things after winning four tough games in a row. The primary goal of winning the division was moving along swimmingly, but as history tells it, the non-divisional teams would be the Bengals undoing.
Mojokong---the truth is never rushed.