The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 24-14 on a breezy (and at times misty) Sunday afternoon, clinching a postseason berth in the process.
It felt like a dreary Monday morning with a bedside alarm clock dropping a 10-pound anvil on your oversized head. Cincinnati's offense appeared out of sync early with the Bengals punting on four of their first five possessions. The 49ers, with respect, appeared ready to leave midway through the first.
Regardless, it was the defense that really ignited Cincinnati's scoring.
- Carlos Dunlap returned a fumble, that he forced, 21 yards to the 49ers' 11-yard line. Five plays later, Jeremy Hill gave Cincinnati a 7-0 lead by narrowly slipping into the endzone against a respectable San Francisco front.
- Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict led a defense that forced another three-and-out, allowing Cincinnati to take a 14-0 lead with Hill's second touchdown of the afternoon -- this time, it was significantly easier.
- Vontaze Burfict intercepted Gabbert on the ensuing possession and AJ McCarron sliced a 20-yard fastball through San Francisco's defense, finding rookie tight end Tyler Kroft, who scored his first career touchdown.
Before anyone knew it, the Bengals outscored the 49ers 21-0 in the second quarter. Cincinnati further extended their lead 24-0 on a 13-play possession to open the third quarter, capped by Mike Nugent's 22-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. It was at this point that Cincinnati's offense switched into ultra-conservative mode, refusing high risk plays that could lead to mistakes or injury -- A.J. Green sat on the bench by this point, nursing an injured back that he suffered during practice on Saturday (he slammed into a retaining wall).
Jeremy Hill, arguably the player of the game, was also the goat. In addition to scoring two touchdowns, increasing his total to 10, he sat out for the entirety of the first quarter and lost a third quarter fumble that led to a touchdown for the 49ers. Some theorize Hill was being disciplined in the first quarter with Giovani Bernard starting and playing virtually every snap -- it wasn't until the 14:16 mark in the second that Hill made his first appearance on Sunday. Then, with 4:57 remaining in the third, Hill lost the previously mentioned fumble during a collision with Andre Smith. San Francisco recovered the football and scored a touchdown five plays later, breaking the shutout and reducing Cincinnati's lead 24-7.
The win clinches a postseason berth for the Bengals. Granted, entry into the postseason has been a foregone conclusion since Cincinnati began the season with an eight-game winning streak, before stumbling and winning only won two of their last five. Regardless, Cincinnati's calculated 8-0 start gave the Bengals a significant lead over their division rivals, as well as all other teams vying for one of the two AFC Wild Card vacancies.
The Bengals squandered an opportunity to clinch the AFC North last week against Pittsburgh, but a collection of injuries, especially to quarterback Andy Dalton, led to an exhausted finale with backup quarterback AJ McCarron, who is projected to make his first career start on Sunday in San Francisco.
This marks a franchise-best fifth consecutive appearance in the playoffs and sixth postseason berth in the last seven seasons. Qualifying for the postseason has never been the issue, or the narrative exhausting fans and players; it's the lack of success once entering the playoffs, when Dalton could make his return. Estimates completely rely on how quickly Dalton heals, and not an issue of pain threshold. Only time will tell when Dalton is able to take the field again.