The Bengals remain in first place in the AFC North and remain in control of their playoff destiny
That win was one of the ugliest wins I can remember...but it was a win. Many Bengals fans seem unaware of this fact - ugly wins count just as much as perfectly executed blowouts. Example: the first person I encountered at work on Monday morning asked if I watched that "debacle" on Sunday and proceeded to tell me how they could not stand to watch the game and turned it off. Excuse me? As I informed said person, it wasn't pretty, but it was a win and it was a win that put the Bengals in sole possession of first place in the AFC North and 1.5 games up on the rest of the division. That is not to say there wasn't plenty to be concerned about in Tampa (we will get into that), but the important part is that they won a game they needed to win. I bet if you ask the fans in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they would loved to have the Bengals "debacle" of a win on Sunday.
The Bengals can essentially eliminate the Steelers in the AFC North race by winning this week
This Sunday's game is huge. Not only is it a home division game - games you have to win, but a win would put the Bengals 2.5 games up on the Steelers with three to play. Translation: to surpass the Bengals in the division, the Steelers would have to win their last three and the Bengals would have to lose their last three.
Marvin Lewis saved the game...but will receive little credit for it
Marvin Lewis is constantly blasted for his game management - and rightfully so - but his decision to throw the challenge flag on a play he knew was not challengeable, was nothing short of brilliant and may have saved the Bengals division title chances - as well as their season. As part of the competition committee, Lewis was well aware of the recent rule change that he would not be penalized for throwing the challenge flag on a non-challengeable play, but would simply lose a timeout. His throwing of the flag caused so much confusion that the refs reviewed the play, and ended up overturning it. You can say the NFL was going to review it anyways, but it didn't look like it to me and I (for one) do not trust that the NFL would have done so. Because of Lewis's brilliant move, the Bengals won that game - but don't hold your breath waiting for fans to give him credit for it. If we are going to blast him for his terrible decisions (see onside kick attempt below), we have to credit him for his good decisions and this was the best move I can ever remember Lewis making.
The Bengals' decision to go for the onside kick was not wise
One of the most famous onside kicks of all-time was the onside kick the Saints had in Super Bowl XLIV against the Colts. The Bengals tried the exact same kick on Sunday in Tampa and while I appreciate the aggressiveness, there is smart aggressive and stupid aggressive. I would call this move the latter. The Saints were playing Peyton Manning and one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history and didn't exactly tout a great defense. The Bengals, on the other hand, were facing a 2-9 team lead by Josh McCown and own a pretty solid defense, which had shut the Buccaneers down all day. The unsuccessful kick immediately took away the momentum the Bengals had captured by taking a four point lead and practically handed the Buccaneers three points - three points that loomed huge while the Buccaneers were driving for what would have been a game winning field goal.
For the third week in a row, the Bengals ran the ball well and stopped the run
The week before Rey Maualuga (hamstring) and Brandon Thompson (knee) returned from their injuries, the Bengals surrendered 170 yards on the ground to the Cleveland Browns. Since his return, the Bengals defense has not given up more than 75 yards on the ground (75, 64, 75) and is holding opponents to a measly 3.0 YPA (70/214). They looked shaky at times on Sunday, but when the final whistle blew, the Bengals had given up just 75 yards on 25 carries (3.0 YPA). Another trend in the past few weeks has been the Bengals run game. While the run game wasn't great on Sunday (28/112), it was effective (4.0 YPA).
James Wright has a role on this team
The Bengals were very high on their seventh round pick in the 2014 draft and we are starting to see why. The leading receiver on Sunday was not named Green, Sanu, or Gresham, but Wright. As in James Wright. The 6'1", 201 pound receiver out of LSU made the team based on his special teams ability but is suddenly finding a role in the regular offense. While he only has five receptions on the year, every catch seems to be a big catch - he has five catches and five first downs. In a year or two, the Bengals will likely let Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu walk in free agency and the reason will be James Wright.
The Bengals need Vontaze Burfict back for the four game home stretch
The Bengals defense, especially the run defense, is starting to play the way we thought they would. They are starting to look like a top 10 defense again, despite not having their most impactful player. Imagine what this defense might look like if they had their leader and their best player? Burfict is now day-to-day, but they could really use him down the stretch. These last four games on the schedule look pretty daunting, but would seem a little less daunting if number "55" is out there.
The Bengals were able to win despite Dalton's struggles
Sick or not sick, Dalton was about as terrible as terrible can be in the first half. Yet the Bengals still found a way to win. Give Dalton credit, he responded in the second half and made some perfect throws to extend some critical drives. However, the Bengals will not be able to overcome that type of play against a good team. So long as Dalton is not sick, they shouldn't have to.
Dalton gutted out a win...and will get zero credit for it
Reports have Dalton puking all day leading up to the game and taking anywhere from two to three IV bags prior to the game. Dalton will not say that is the reason he was so bad, but it certainly played a role. I doubt many will be able to see past his three awful first half interceptions - and they were bad - but Dalton's second half was impressive given what he was apparently dealing with. His touchdown pass to Green was a perfectly thrown ball, as was the drive extending dime he dropped in James Wright's lap down the sideline. He also threaded the needle to Sanu on what should have been a drive extending 20 yard completion, but Sanu dropped it.
The Bengals defense could not tackle
In general, the Bengals defense played well on Sunday and if not for Andy Dalton and the coaching staff continually giving the Buccaneers the football, they may have pitched a shutout. However, the tackling was atrocious; most notably Reggie Nelson's missed tackle on Josh McCown's dump off to Bobby Rainey. Nelson had the opportunity to drop Rainey, in bounds, for a five yard gain and instead went high and Rainey escaped for a 29 yard pickup that put Tampa in field goal territory. Normally a sure tackler, Nelson has missed a number of tackles the past few weeks because he has gone high.
Drops continue to plague the Bengals receivers
Mohamed Sanu has had a breakout season and the Bengals would not be where they are today if not for Sanu stepping up like he has. With that being said, no player in the NFL has more drops than Sanu (7) and Sanu is dropping 7.9% of his catchable passes. That is not good.
Sanu dropped what would have been a huge 20 yard completion and 3rd down conversion in the fourth quarter, which may have allowed the Bengals to ice the game. On top of Sanu, Green had another huge drop as well, and like Sanu, Green's drop came on a perfectly thrown pass by Dalton and would have been a first down. As much flak as Bengals fans give Dalton - sometimes warranted - keep in mind, only four teams have dropped more passes than the Bengals (21) and only two teams have dropped a higher percentage of passes than the Bengals (5.6%). While not excusing his play, Dalton's three worst games of the year (Indianapolis, Cleveland, Tampa Bay) were littered with dropped passes.
Marshall Newhouse is a concern
We said it last week on the Inside the Jungle Podcast, Marshall Newhouse is a concern at right tackle. Sunday showed why. Clint Boling, who played some right tackle at Georgia, took Newhouse's spot for a few drives in the first half before Newhouse was brought back in, but the fact that Hue Jackson is referring to Newhouse and Boling as "candidates" at right tackle tells you all you need to know about the confidence the Bengals have in their right tackle options - which is why they signed Eric Winston.
Hue Jackson's fourth quarter play calling with a lead has to be questioned
After taking a 14-10 lead late in the third quarter, the Bengals had three fourth quarter drives, generated just two first downs and saw two of their drives end in a three and out. In fact, the Bengals final drive fizzled at the Tampa 40 yard line, just a few yards shy of what would have been a huge field goal attempt. In those three fourth quarter drives, Hue called 13 plays: 8 runs and 5 passes. Of the five passes, two were to backs (Hewitt and Hill) and only one came on first or second down and that was a three yard pass to the full back Ryan Hewitt. In Hue's defense, on the second drive he did dial up two nice third down pass plays - the first was converted but called back by a bogus OPI on Green and the second was a nice pass which Sanu dropped. However, in a game where the Bengals were clinging to a one point lead and desperately needed first downs, Hue got ultra conservative and nearly cost the Bengals a victory.
NFL referees are terrible and NFL games are becoming more difficult to watch
Remember 2012 when fans complained about the replacement refs and gave a standing ovation when the "real" referees returned? The replacement refs couldn't have been worse than what we are seeing this year. The NFL is focusing on calling penalties for contact down the field on both receivers and defensive backs, but they are making the game hard to watch. The referees are calling tick tack penalties on offensive and defensive players and making it completely impossible for defensive players to actually "play defense." The two plays that come to mind on Sunday were the OPI called on Green in the fourth quarter - which could have cost the Bengals the game - and the hands to the face/illegal contact penalty they called on Newman for simply playing defense. Hopefully the NFL office is noticing how this is hurting the game, but I doubt it... Seems like they have a bunch of other things catching their attention these days.