It seemed like all of Texas had packed into Reliant Stadium in Houston last week to watch the state's other football team take care of business against the Cincinnati Bengals. The stage became too heavy, too intense. It lead to panic and and eventually submission for the Stripes. The Texans were not afraid, they relished in their spotlight. They made terrific plays and dazzled with their talents, while the Bengals missed numerous opportunities.
The same was true the week before against the Ravens. When the going got tough, the tough ran the ball. For two straight weeks, the Bengals were mortally wounded by explosive running backs. The fact is, the whole defense couldn't continue it's ferocity in the season's second half and especially in their last two games when it mattered the most. They were worn and torn in the end and it slowed them down into a vanilla group of tacklers. Mix that in with an exposed and untalented secondary, and just a dash of Adam Jones' emotional instability and what you have is the perfect recipe for a late-season let down.
Perhaps letdown is too harsh. After all, they still did manage to beat the Rams and the Cardinals and make the playoffs. Nine wins is roughly three more than most would have given them in the preseason and should be applauded as a whole. But the last quarter of the season, games 13-17, the Bengals were simply unimpressive at nearly every turn. Leads weren't safe, comeback attempts were tenuous, confidence was not radiating from Paul Brown Stadium. The playbook found its limitations with the inability to hold up against the blitz, the running attack was either fumbling the game away or forced into the backseat while playing from behind.
The Bengals secondary was mightily exposed in the stretch run as a group of tired old men who couldn't hold up in the second half of games. Their speed, tackling and communication deficiencies allowed teams to either crawl back from the dead or shove in the dagger that put the game away for good. Leon Hall's absence was felt more than I expected. I thought Adam Jones would elevate his game with such an increased workload but that didn't happen either. No one, except for Taylor Mays before he got hurt, improved over the course of the season back there—no one made plays. Reggie Nelson was the only remaining serviceable regular in the secondary but he wasn't enough.
Chris Crocker has been on the team for two seasons too many—he's starting to smell like Dhani Jones in that way. His dropped interception in the third quarter of the wild-card game sealed his doom for both another playoff game and perhaps his job. Then, just in case there were any doubters left in the audience, he attempted to tackle Arian Foster with his back instead of with his hands or even with his head. He and Nate Clements simply weren't the quality starters they were earlier in the year and one has to assume that's because of age.
On offense, the good news is that Andy Dalton has experienced first hand the level of play it takes to win in the postseason, and now I think he could really use the break. I sensed an edge to him down the stretch, a kind of discomfort. Most rookie quarterbacks don't even play, much less make the playoffs, and the mental rigors that come with that process is tough to imagine. If the kid experienced a little burnout in the end, who could blame him. Now he can relax for a while, cleanse his mind, and come back next year ready to have fun again.
The next hurdle for Dalton and the others is learning to beat the tough-guy defenses. While he improved on his ability to read defenses and check off accordingly, the basic nature of the offense seemed to find its limitations against the more formidable defenses on the schedule. Also, the offensive line pass-protected poorly in the key games against Baltimore and Houston and while Dalton's pocket presence has been rightfully praised, he is still prone to getting rattled by too much pressure. When Bobby Williams was shelved with a broken ankle, the effect was immediately visible. Mike McGlynn's performance was underwhelming at best and the need for more depth at guard was concreted in many conversations around the area.
It would have taken a great effort by the Bengals to rise up and defeat another playoff team—they were always outmatched—but it was there. In key moments, concentration was lost and mistakes were made. The lesson learned this quarter is that the season is long for a reason: it's hard to hold up. The organizations that are the mentally toughest are the ones that show up in the playoffs every year; the others make seldom and brief appearances and are used as postseason fodder. If the Bengals want to elevate themselves from the fill-ins to the fixtures, they have to be tougher at the end of next season.