With the 2-4 Bengals heading into the weekend with the Miami Dolphins on tap, Cincinnati unquestionably is dealing with the term "must-win game" again. Then thoughtful Josh drops a knee on the ground, placed his elbow on the other knee and gently lowers his head on his hand; a thinking man's pose. Technically, every game from this point forward will be considered a must-win, because the truth is, they're still very much alive for a playoff run, albeit, laying in a coma with a short-skirted nurse. Totally. So fine, call this weekend's game a must-win. Just like we have the previous two games in which the team folded like a chair, took that chair, and did a Mick Foley across the face.
We said earlier in the preseason that in order for the Bengals to make the playoffs, they had to beat teams that they should beat. They didn't. As a result, they're already running face first into "must-win" situations this year. If the Bengals were in any other division, this may not be the case. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore combining for a 10-3 start to the season, it is the case. If the Bengals didn't have games remaining against teams that went to the playoffs last year or lead their respective divisions this year, "must-win" wouldn't be the case so early in the season. But it is the case.
To some degree, the Bengals faced a must-win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to an unexpected loss to Cleveland, an upcoming bye week, and a schedule where the team needed credits (wins) as the season's schedule unwound. They lost by three points to Cleveland. They headed into last week's game against the Atlanta Falcons with another must-win game attached to it. After both teams recorded enough yards to wear out Forrest Gump, the Bengals lost by a touchdown. And the most we learned in the past two games is that our boys are not reacting well to pressure, doing the same stupid things that's contributed to the losses -- penalties, turnovers, bad redzone offense, terrible kick/punt return teams, pitiful defense in comparison to last year's squad that's largely comprised of the exact same personnel -- and playing with little emotion and absolutely zero heart.
Are the Bengals out of the playoffs? Not technically and definitely not mathematically. Even though the Bengals are half-a-game away from owning last place on their own, they are only two games outside of the Wild Card race. But like winning the division, they'll still have to go on a mad run in order to compete with the Indianapolis Colts who, as of now, are the sixth seed, if you can believe it. If they take the AFC South, then we have to deal with a 5-2 Tennessee Titans team. The second Wild Card? As of right now, it's the loser between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Not too promising, making the Jets a must-win for the tie-breaker advantage. Damn. Another must-win? Can't we have one weekend where watching the Bengals is stress-free and fun?
I'm not here to tell you the Bengals will or won't make the playoffs. While it's still early, the fans and media have to take it with a game-by-game approach. Will they play with heart, like they did in 2009? Are they cutting the needless presnap fouls? Are they finishing drives with touchdowns? If not, we're back to watching games with no post-season implications because if we don't, we feel guilty and naughty. We could have fun with it, like we did in 2008 during our "Wreck Your Team" campaign, in which the Bengals caused several problems with several teams. The Jaguars were the first team to lose to the Bengals. Donovan McNabb learned about the NFL overtime rules. We knocked the Redskins out of any playoff opportunity. And we shutout the Browns, which is awesome no matter what year, week or day it is.
However, there is a secondary issue with the Bengals starting 2-4, pushing themselves so far behind the eight-ball that playoff ambitions seems so long ago.
You can't say that Marvin Lewis is on the hot seat. The Bengals have approached Lewis about an extension, and unless you fire the coach during the season, you can't say that a coach with an expiring contract is on the hot seat. They either sign him or they don't. There's no firing involved here. Truthfully, I can see why Lewis would leave. Wants an indoor practice facility, reportedly a little more control among other things that have been reported and conjectured. And maybe the Bengals actually believe that they are one head coach away from winning a playoff game.
From the coaching staff to the player roster, this team could look very different next year. I'm not exactly sure if that's a good thing, or the most horrifying idea ever.