Despite a panic-inducing third quarter last Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals have to feel relatively good for beating the Ravens in Baltimore -- something that Cincinnati hasn't done since 2009. And it's the first time since 2011 that the Bengals won a regular season opener. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green made their NFL debuts that year... which resulted in Bruce Gradkowski rushing the offense back to the line of scrimmage and catching cornerback Joe Haden and the rest of Cleveland's defense completely unaware. Green easily caught the uncovered fourth-quarter touchdown to give Cincinnati a game-winning lead.
The next year, Cincinnati didn't seem to have a chance during kickoff weekend, when Baltimore hosted the Bengals for a Monday Night trist. The Ravens took a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter, but the game stabilized and BenJarvus Green-Ellis' six-yard touchdown with 18 seconds reduced Cincinnati's deficit to a touchdown heading into half time. Then Baltimore outscored Cincinnati 27-3 in the second half. No chance... that's what you got.
Last year was a bit closer. Cincinnati lost by a field goal after a Brandon Marshall 19-yard touchdown reception gave Chicago a 24-21 lead. Unfortunately, the Bengals were in full meltdown mode in the fourth quarter. After Vontaze Burfict intercepted a Jay Cutler pass with 14:06 remaining (while Cincinnati was leading 21-17), Mohamed Sanu lost a fumble that eventually led to Chicago's game-winning touchdown. The Bengals would only have one more possession and went three-and-out -- sack, five-yard pass to Green and incomplete pass to Marvin Jones. Chicago wiped out the game's final six minutes when Cincinnati's defense couldn't get off the field -- with help from a Rey Maualuga personal foul (on third down with over a minute remaining). Game over.
This year is a completely new scenario... with an indifferent study in history. Even before playing their second game of the regular season, the Bengals have lone possession of first place -- thanks to Baltimore beating Pittsburgh on Thursday Night.
Cincinnati's win naturally (and obviously) enhances their postseason scenarios. Since the league adopted a 16-game schedule, teams that have won their regular season opener are "twice as likely to reach the playoffs." Of the 523 teams that won their respective opener, 274 went to the playoffs and 164 won their division. Of the teams that lost, only 124 went to the playoffs and 70 won their division.
"Obviously, it’s a big win for us," Marvin Lewis said. "Anytime you come in here and win a football game, it’s a big win. It’s a division win, and it’s on the road. And Bill Cowher told me (Saturday) that we stole one. I thought we played a tick off of the football. We were just a tick off offensively. We got some field goals, but we've got to get the ball in the end zone. And we were just a tick off of making those plays. We have a lot to look at and get better at.
"I thought, defensively, we did good things. We weren't as good as we needed to be on third down. Frankly, I thought we looked better than we were. But statistics say we need to be better. That’s an area we need to continue to improve in. And, obviously, we can’t give up the deep ball on the play at the end. Thought special teams wise, it was a game where there wouldn't be many kickoffs. We let the one return get out, and we let them get a good punt return. We have to keep working, but I really thought our guys stepped up and did a good job. I was really proud how they finished this thing today."
In other words, the Bengals didn't look great... hell, they weren't even good by some measure -- especially in the second half. Scoring five times in the first half is awesome... when they're field goals, you feel a little less impressed. Cincinnati's second half defense was a victim of the second half offense, who couldn't stay on the field. Eventually exhausted hands were on hips and Baltimore had all of the momentum. Cincinnati needed back-to-back sacks at the end to finish the game.
"You just try to win every play, and that was a new play for the game, and coach [Paul Guenther] dialed up a great call," said defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry. "The secondary played great in coverage, allowing [Joe] Flacco to hold it one second longer than he wanted to. So, I was there and able to take care of business."
"Coach [Paul Guenther] made a great call," said safety Reggie Nelson, who joined Gilberry on the final sack. "And that’s what we have to do. When our number is called, we have to perform. We did that, and the offense came back and helped us out a lot. It’s a team effort. We all did our jobs, and our offense helped us out a lot in this game."
The Bengals will have an opportunity Sunday to show even more. If the defense is unable to hold Atlanta from replicating their 500-plus yard attack from last week (which I believe that they will), then the Bengals offense will be asked to match. It could be fun. It could depressing. Either way, at some point, you will have a panic attack. It is what it is.
THE JERMAINE GRESHAM STORYLINE
Former first-rounder Jermaine Gresham is embracing the villain role now -- if by villain, we're talking about a tweeting martyr looking for some sympathy. People hate me. No one listens to me.
Regardless, villain isn't even an accurate description. Gresham is more of the anti-hero in this story. We want him to do well. We notice when he does great things for the greater good... and sometimes they are great. But every once in awhile, he reverts into bad habits that betrays fans. And for some reason, it takes half of a season to archive those betrayals.
In truth, it's a stupid story line that I hope... at the very least, is good for a laugh.
Gresham is an intensely private person who rarely grants interviews. He'd rather keep to himself. Then again... why is he using twitter?
TYLER EIFERT GOES ON IR-RECALL
After being demoted into a two-man tight end tandem that Cincinnati hopes expands their offense, Gresham watched as another former first-rounder suffered a dislocated elbow during the regular season opener.
Eifert was placed on the team's Injured Reserve recall list earlier this week. Entry into this list means that Eifert will not be able to practice for six weeks or play for eight -- eligible to return for Nov. 6 game against Cleveland.
"Every time I feel like I'm getting back into it, something happens," Eifert said earlier this week. "It is what it is. It happened. It's hard to make the most of an injury, but it's the situation I'm in right now. So just be positive and keep going."
Gresham, who is often disregarded despite some of the good that he's done in Cincinnati, will once again take center stage at tight end.
DEVON STILL NEVER LEFT, BUT RETURNS
Devon Still had a good week. Four days after the team decided to send all revenue earned from Devon Still jersey sales, it was announced that nearly $400,000 was raised for pediatric cancer research at Children's Hospital. Even New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton pulled out his checkbook and paid for 100 jerseys out of his own pocket.
Then head coach Marvin Lewis had a chat with Still leading to his return to the team's active roster.
"We have an open roster spot, and this is the best football move we can make to fill it," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We think Devon is ready to rejoin our line rotation and be productive. It already was stated that a big reason Devon opened on the practice squad was that he couldn't fully focus on football this preseason. He had to take care of his daughter (Leah, four, diagnosed with cancer). But Devon has told us he feels ready to contribute now, so it’s the right move at the right time. And we've told Devon he can still be afforded the personal time he needs to attend to his daughter’s care."
Still began the season on the team's practice squad, largely because his focus was on his daugher, who is suffering from stage four cancer, rather than football.
"I can’t give football 100 percent right now," Still said last week. "In the business aspect they want guys solely focused on football. And that’s understandable. We’re here to win this city a Super Bowl and right now I’m just not in position where I can give football 100 percent."
It's a great story that's been developing in Cincinnati -- one that hopes for a healthy conclusion. Football is football. Many fans need it to escape from their own "reality" but let's face it: This is recreational. And in the end, we want Still and his family to have a happy ending. If that translates to success for the Bengals, so be it. If not, oh well. Either way, you have to remind people, sometimes, that we're human. Football is play... nothing more.