I never thought there would be a wait more excruciating during the month of December than the anxiety I felt at six years old, heading to bed on Christmas Eve. The idea that the big guy, loaded with countless hours of fun wrapped in gifts, could be placing them under the tree at any moment, kept me more alert than any over-the-counter drug could ever replicate. Fast forward twenty-three years later, and another big guy is inducing so much anxiety that no antacid can cure it. Ben Roethlisberger stands between the Bengals and a postseason.
When the 2012 schedule rolled out last spring, the final two games for the Bengals had the aroma of a divisional sudden death. As Jason Garrison pointed out: we've been here before. The stakes are familiar, as any division rivalry tends to be, but the feel of this final hurdle seems slightly different.
Since A.J. Green and Andy Dalton revitalized the franchise with youth and optimism, this Bengals squad has been able to defy the expectations of both fans and critics. In 2011, the Bengals practically had a permission slip in its hands to struggle, as the team was expected to rebuild with unproven NFL talent. Instead they went to the playoffs. The common denominator with last year and this is a simple one: They haven't been able to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens. Even when the Bengals "had control over their own destiny" (a phrase we've been pummeled with the past few weeks), they failed to beat the Ravens when it seemed everything was on the line during the final week of the 2011 season. But even with a crushing loss in January, the Bengals still discovered consolation in a playoff appearance thanks to a series of AFC developments that mathematically opened a postseason doorway.
Even when facing a "must win" scenario last season (which technically wasn't), the Bengals fell short. However, a season of accomplishments seemingly justified the Bengals traveling to Houston for a shot at the Super Bowl. We all know what occurred in Houston: The Bengals lost, Chris Crocker missed a tackle and the Texans moved on. The Bengals, like any other team, were left with an offseason in which they needed to take the next step in 2012. In some ways they did. In other ways, perhaps more importantly, the Bengals have yet to firmly plant their foot on the throats of their greatest divisional rivals.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, and with every intent of emphasizing how poetic Sunday is: Now is the time to take that step.
Labeling a win in Pittsburgh a "statement" doesn't do it justice. It's a monumental declaration that the Bengals have an opportunity to deliver. The Bengals haven't beaten the Steelers or Ravens since September 2010. Over half of this current Bengals team wasn't on the roster at the time. With both division rivals reeling with injuries and uncharacteristic losses over the past month, it would seem that the conditions are ripe for the Bengals to finally take that next step. Not only does a win in Pittsburgh earn a postseason berth for the Bengals, it injects confidence that has been threatened after the Cowboys slipped through their toes of a last second field goal, and a win over the Eagles that was filled with mental errors and inefficiency until Philadelphia's fumbling woes surfaced.
The Bengals have taken some steps this season when you consider last year. They've won on a short week for a Thursday night game (Eagles), they've beaten a team many expected they wouldn't (Giants), and won on the road with a lackluster history of west coast travel (Chargers). They've tackled the side quests and now it's time for the boss battle, which they must win if they want to move closer to the finale. All video game metaphors aside, it couldn't be any clearer what needs to happen for the Bengals to take the next step toward New Orleans. It's time to bring Christmas early in Cincinnati. It's time to dethrone the Pittsburgh Steelers.