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The Playoff Party: The Invited Gate-Crasher

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Now that the holidays are over and a new decade is upon us, it's time to really get loose and check out the annual Playoff Party.

Every year is a good time, but the 2010 rendition is extra special.

While Indianapolis and New England work the familiar room over with handshakes and pretentious grins, a newcomer slides its way inside when no one is looking. This is a scruffy character adorned in shabby clothing and who smells of a campfire; lo and behold, it's Cincinnati!

The other teams had seen Cincinnati before but always outside of the party huddled around trash and dirty blankets at a nearby bus stop. To think this mangy team was actually inside, rummaging through the cabinets and desk drawers of the place, is unthinkable. Yet there they are; officially invited. Bizarre but true.

San Diego, the California slickster with bleached teeth and chest hair, notices the cumbersome figure near the door and dances its way over in that direction.

"Wanna party?" San Diego asks sauntering from side to side and rotating its arms in circles.

"I'm partying," Cincinnati replies.

"No, I mean really party," San Diego says and reaches for something in its pocket.

"No, that's okay. I like going at my own pace," Cincinnati says before San Diego can brandish whatever it is.

"Your loss," says San Diego and dances back to the center of the room.

The other teams are standing around Baltimore, paying their compliments to it on all the weight it had lost since the year before. Cincinnati isn't sure what to do next so it slowly approaches the other guests. Before its stench and generally unpleasant affect reaches the others, New York bursts into the room and goes right after Cincinnati.

"What's this bum doing here?" asks the brash, hot-headed New York team.

"I was invited," Cincinnati answers.

"You shouldn'ta been. We don't like you. You're a phony and you know it, you bum." New York fires back.

"What about you? You're only here because you knew a guy who knew a guy and arranged for you to get in. Anybody else invite this guy?" Cincinnati asks the others. Indianapolis clears its throat and smiles.

"C'mon guys, relax. The point is you're both here and that's good enough, isn't it?" Indianapolis says cheerfully.

"Screw that," says New York and unzips its velour track-jacket. "I'm taking out this trash right now. You hear that, you bum? It's trash day!"

Cincinnati sighs, removes its five winter coats, ties a shoestring around its long, greasy hair and readies itself for battle.

And so it goes.

January in the AFC is pretty much the same every year. Indy, New England, San Diego and Baltimore are regulars. Typically so is Pittsburgh, but everyone grew tired of its constant self-righteous boasting and tried like hell to keep them away this year; it barely worked. One of the real joys of this season was witnessing Pittsburgh forcibly removed from its throne and tossed out into the street. The last four months in Cincinnati have felt like one long Bastille Day.

Many---as in most of the known football universe---have very low expectations for the Bengals to stick around the party for all that long. They think that chances are Cincinnati will make an ass of itself and either be tossed out themselves or have the cops called on it, but the other possibility seems strangely plausible too.

We all know the weird person at the party who was invited but just won't go home. The person who drinks up all the leftover booze, talks over everyone else and leers at people as they pass. The person who seems unwilling to return to their own life. This is perhaps the Bengals.

Cincinnati seems too weird to simply be cast off immediately. Nothing makes sense about this team; it's like an unsightly creature from another planet---tough on the eyes, but intriguing in its oddity. The fact the Bengals play the Jets two weeks in a row makes sense because it's strange. Losing to a team 37-0 one week and having to play them again the next would be bad news for most teams, but for the goofy Bengals, it's likely the opposite.

It's become difficult to rationally analyze this team and predict the events and outcomes of their games because of the weird stuff that always happens to them. The cloud of the unexpected that hovers around the Bengals was kind to them in the beginning, providing wins and a domination of the division, but then went south in the second half of the year and slowed the momentum that swelled early on.

All year, it's been written of how tough the Bengals are, how gritty of a team this is. Terms like physical and smash-mouth have become synonymous with this once aerial-based squad and the coaches have been lauded with deserving praise for such an abrupt turnaround.

Yet if all these things are true, and if the pendulum of the unexpected indeed swings back the Bengals way, then why can't we see big things from them in the Playoffs?

Carson Palmer has an opportunity of a lifetime that begins this week. Here is a man who was once considered of Jedi pedigree, but has since drifted away from earning such praise as his career now transitions into its second half. His Playoff years have been infrequent compared to the great ones and his own team has dramatically shifted away from the passing game. The Jets team he will face Saturday limited him to zero yards on 11 passing attempts yesterday. From the outside, it would appear that Carson just isn't what we thought he would become.

I wouldn't count out the Golden Boy just yet though.

There are a few things that I think we can all agree on when it comes to Carson: he works hard, he seems fairly intelligent, and he appears to have tremendous leadership qualities. We can argue about how brainwashed of a programmable machine he's become, but for now we'll leave that out. There were a fair amount of dropped passes that shared in such an unimpressive showing at the Meadowland Massacre, and I really want to believe that we ran some basic plays to hide the good stuff for the next game, so it seems fair to assume that a repeat passing performance of such a putrid nature is at least unlikely in the Wild Card Game.

Therefore, Carson can pull this team through. He should have a great game, perhaps not statistically, but in the way of making the exceptional play when the standard variety won't get it done. Normally I like to figure out how the Bengals can win without Palmer because I feel that's how this team wins, but that is no longer the case. It starts and ends with him and it had better start on Saturday; anything else will further trap Carson in the ranks of the good-but-not-great category.

So there stands New York, already sweating from jumping around in its wifebeater and yelling a lot. It keeps playing to the crowd at the party by slicking back its brill-cream hair and sneering and pointing at Cincinnati. It says its ready for a fight and is really playing the part. Cincinnati doesn't look like much, but looks weird enough to try anything. Those are usually the ones to worry about.

Mojokong---"Let's get weird."--Reed Radcliffe, famous man.