With only 16 games on the slate to begin with, dropping two in a row is a concern, even for a previously undefeated team at the midway point of the NFL season. Yet, while some of the Bengals faithful may have allowed the sugarplum thoughts of an undefeated season to dance through their heads at different points, reason, logic and sanity chalked up a few L’s for the rest of us and we knew the sledding would get rough here and there.
Run with the primetime narrative if you so choose, but that’s flimsy analysis. In fact, the very premise of the idea that the Bengals shrink in the bright lights is to assume a lack of character strength and mental toughness within the team. I think that has been the case in the past, but compare last year’s examples to those of the current group.
In 2014, when the going got tough, the team’s confidence and belief spiraled around the toilet bowl until meeting the inevitable; comebacks weren’t really a thing in Cincinnati last year. Now, the Bengals are ready for the adversity of a challenging fourth quarter. They still stumble during stretches and look bad for whole quarters at a time, but the fighter’s response has be seen time and again during the first 10 games of 2015, and, despite what seemed impossible during the offseason, Andy Dalton and his teammates have managed to demand more respect within the NFL community and become real contenders in late November.
Losing to Houston on Monday Night Football, 10-6, is not the mark of a champion. Romeo Crennel designed a game plan as tight as a diamond vault and Hue Jackson toolbox did little more than scratch its surface. Even when the play did show promise, the inability to grasp the football—that most basic ingredient of offensive success—proved elusive. It was a night of well-covered first reads and sketchy improv from the Red BB Gun and even an ugly win could not be salvaged.
Because the Bengals dominated their schedule heartily up to that point, the loss to the Texans' got a pass by many observers, but another showing of that kind would deservedly knock the Bengals from the chairs of the elite and require a bit more surprise should the highest heights be reached later on this season (and postseason).
What took place in Arizona, however, was different. If you allow for such a thing as a respectable loss, then surely this game is ranked among that category. The desert is an explosive place where missiles and bombs are tested and touchdowns are scored in bunches. Carson Palmer has found a nice place to write the closing chapters of his very weird career and he has the right pieces in place to finally get to throw it deep all the time without worrying. That’s all he’s ever wanted.
Add the fact that Cincinnati was scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of depth at corner and safety, and a 30-plus scoring day for the Cardinals looked extremely likely.
The Bengals and their fans have all hung their hats on the "best roster in football" mantra and it still remains correct, but this is a stretch of the season where all that super depth is being tested. With no Adam Jones, and then no Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick suddenly became the secondary’s most important man on Sunday and he is still not ready for that kind of role. He’s gritty and plays hard, but he’s not great and probably never will be. Once Shawn Williams and Reggie Nelson had to leave the game, Marvin Lewis had to go really deep on the bench to see who could stop the bleeding. No one could.
That’s what makes the effort on the game’s last drive so frustratingly predictable. Arizona had the ball with just over a minute and no timeouts. It took them four throws to go 60 yards and set up for the game winning field goal like it was a practice session. The back end couldn’t make a play in what became just another lesson that excellence cannot be maintained for only 59 minutes. The Bengals could be described as highly competitive in the game up to that point and then, in a blink of an eye, the opposite became true.
The flipside, though, is their ability to make it a game in the first place. A.J. Green’s toes were three inches away from winning the game. Those three inches dramatically changed what is being written today. Three inches went from thrusting Andy Dalton back into the MVP conversation, to how he cannot perform in the big games. That’s football for you.
Nonetheless, the Bengals did not play particularly well, while the Cardinals looked very good, and the game still came down to the bitter end. Last year’s team would not have remained highly competitive. Last year, we would have seen long, pouty faces or angry outbursts along the sideline. We would have seen shellshock, and even though it is largely the same men, there is a newly developed sense of focus that is unquestionable and present and simply not shockable.
The season is long, the weather is setting in and the contending teams are transforming and reinventing themselves to prepare for the mountainous pass to the playoffs as we speak. Those who remain static and complacent in their first half success will see their tower crumble by Christmas and spend their holidays sullen and grouchy. Cincinnati still has the luxury to showcase a different talent each game and remain among the cool kids expected at the playoff party. But, the Bengals must shore up the pass protection and get more reliability from the running game.
It’s a vital stretch of the season for the Bengals. Somewhere, Ben Roethlisberger sits in his evil lair and plots for a tie-breaking scenario in Week 14. Wins against St. Louis and Cleveland are essential to keep the vile Steeler at bay and pound into the postseason like a raging, ugly party crasher no one wanted to see show up in the first place. So while the primetime struggles continue to be passed around to the various football publications as a headline go-to, it will be the strategies implemented during weekday afternoons in offices, meeting rooms and practice fields that will determine the rest of the season.
This Bengals team is good enough to overcome every doubt floated in their direction and it has given very little reason to panic, even with a two-game losing streak underway. losses are behind us, victory awaits.