In my heart of hearts, I think many of us secretly saw this coming. The Bengals hadn't been at their best; the Browns had lost three close games. The two teams are as familiar as siblings and there is little, if anything, they haven't seen from each other before. Nearly every time Cincinnati travels to Cleveland the score ends up close. We all wanted this game to be as easy as a walk to the bank, but we should have known better.
To the Browns' credit, they played a great game. Seneca Wallace may not be a fantasy darling, but he is shifty, made some nice throws on the run, and managed the game much better than I expected of him. Peyton Hillis is a bruiser who picks up the tough yards on nearly every occasion. Their defensive line is fat and clogs running lanes well. I feel that Cleveland won this game more than Cincinnati lost it, and that the Browns are better than what we thought they were.
That being said, I thought the game came down to one pivotal moment. The Bengals had the ball at Cleveland's 31-yard line on third-and-four, down by three points with 5:22 left in the game. They lined up in a single-back shotgun formation with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco on the right, and Andre Caldwell on the left. When the ball was snapped, Carson Palmer and the entire offensive line rolled to the right while both TO and Ocho headed for the sideline. Carson threw on the run, across his body to Chad who not only dropped the pass, but was also flagged for offensive pass interference on the play.
This selection of the play call remains a mystery to me. Why intentionally force a quarterback—who has proven he isn't at his best when throwing on the run—throw on the run? Why design a play that ends up with two receivers running to the same spot of the field? Why risk working the sidelines at such a critical time in the game? Andre Caldwell apparently was also flummoxed on the play because before Palmer even threw it, Caldwell threw up his hands in disbelief—he was also open for a first down, by the way.
This falls squarely on the shoulders of that awful man, Bob Bratkowski. The success rate of this play on third and four is likely around 17 percent and should never have been considered. Yes, the Browns were blitzing on the play, but they had blitzed most of the game and the passing offense still succeeded on more conventional passing plays. Why not run a slant to TO or a quick square-in to Gresham? Why force the ball to Chad on a play where he must incur a flag to get open? Why?
We shall never know, but it only adds to the already putrid opinion that I, and many many others, have on the one known as Brat. I realize that no coordinator will ever be fully accepted by the fans and media, and to his credit, Bratkowski called a decent game up to that point. However, in a close game like that, it only takes one bone-headed decision to ruin a Sunday and the entire week leading up to that day.
Still, the team gave us fans a new conundrum and that is: what are we suppose to bitch about now? Sure, there's Bratkowski but I just did that and he's not going anywhere. Carson was everybody's favorite punching bag up to that point—and he still holds onto the ball too long—but he had a very good, if not great, game. What I was especially surprised to see was his ability to move out of the pocket and deliver accurate passes on the run—yes, I know how contradictory I sound right now. The defense, while not that bad, wasn't it's domineering self, and there were far too many special-teams breakdowns. The new thing to justifiably complain over, however, is the offensive line.
Let's face it, Andre Smith just isn't going to reach the levels he should. Even Mathis, Nate Livings and Dennis Roland now look like the undrafted free-agents they are, and I was never too sure that Bobby Williams was worth all that money he was given during the offseason. Andrew Whitworth isn't bad, but he's better at guard, and Kyle Cook seems pretty damn average himself. The real reason this team went to the playoffs last year was the overachieving effort these guys cashed in last year and now, it seems, they've come back down to earth.
Cedric Benson appears much more pedestrian without the offensive-line's maximum effort, and the Bengals haven't consistently won through the air in over five seasons. Of the four sacks against Cleveland, at least two of those fall on the big man's broad shoulders and Cleveland is not known for any viscous pass rush. I can't pinpoint the difference from 2009 to 2010 in regards to the play of the line, but whatever allowed them to be hungry, hungry hippos which mauled the opposition during a 10-win campaign a year ago, simply doesn't exist right now.
Yet, as the eternal optimist I like to label myself as, it must be pointed out that all is not lost. Quick: who is the best team in the AFC right now? Pittsburgh? Well they lost to Baltimore and we beat them. New England? What does that mean about the Jets? The Colts? They have the same record as Cincinnati. The point is, Kansas City is the only undefeated team in the NFL and most would agree that they do not top the power rankings. The Bengals lost a game they should have won, but they gave an average performance while Cleveland gave it their best. Cincinnati is not good enough to escape with a win that way...yet.
There is still a long way to go and, outside of racking up a big rushing total, we've already seen this team show capabilities in a lot of different categories. If they can put it all together and turn themselves around, then they will have accomplished the hokey-pokey and that's what it's all about—the hokey-pokey. It's a big if, but here's to the hokey-pokey.
Mojokong—put your whole self in.