It wasn't pretty, and it sure as hell didn't wash away the losses of Super Bowls XVI and XXIII, but, thanks to a rare victory over the 49ers, the Bengals accomplished the first of their goals - clinching a playoff berth. Here is what else we learned on Sunday.
The Bengals will be in the playoffs...again.
For the fifth time in the last five seasons, and the sixth time in the last seven, the Bengals will be playing in the NFL's football tournament. Joke all you want about their lack of success in said tournament, but few teams have had such a consistent streak of success. In fact, only the New England Patriots (7) and Green Bay Packers (7) have a longer active streak.
AJ McCarron did not impress me...
...But, more importantly, he did not disappoint me either. I didn't expect a whole lot, I was just hoping for an efficient and turnover-free day from McCarron. And on that, he delivered: 15/21, 192 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 115.6. Not bad for a guy making his first NFL start. That being said, he wasn't exactly facing the 1980's 49ers and was never put in a high pressure situation where he was asked to make a play. Overall, it was a good first start which allowed McCarron to get his feet wet before facing a top-ranked Broncos defense on the road.
On a side note, did anyone realize that was the first Alabama quarterback to win an NFL game as the starting quarterback since Jeff Rutledge (Giants) on November 15, 1987?
McCarron throws a nice deep ball.
He is no Jeff Blake, but in seven quarters now, McCarron has dropped three beautiful deep balls - two to A.J. Green and one to Marvin Jones. After last week's 66 yard strike to Green, McCarron followed it up in San Francisco by hitting Jones for 47 and Green for 37 yard gains.
Sunday's game plan was much more conservative than I expected.
Despite Hue Jackson's insistence they wouldn't scale back the offense, anyone with an ounce of football knowledge knew that wouldn't be the case - but who can blame them? They were on the road with essentially a rookie quarterback making his first start. That being said, I didn't think they would be as conservative as they were - 36 rushes to 25 pass plays (59%). Had the Bengals' defense not provided the Bengals an early lead and the luxury of being conservative, Jackson would opened things up a bit more, but given the situation (up 21-0 at half), Hue played it right. However, if the Bengals have any hope of winning in Denver, they can't be so conservative and will need McCarron to throw the ball more often.
Anyone who doubted the importance of Andy Dalton got a rude awakening seeing what the Bengals are missing.
Let's be honest, there are plenty of fans/experts, Bengal and non-Bengal supporters, who believe Dalton is nothing but the product of Jackson's system and has a bunch of talent. I hope those people were watching this offense on Sunday. Don't get me wrong, I like McCarron, and think he can be an NFL starting quarterback, but to think he can simply step in and do what has taken Dalton four plus years to build, is naive. In fairness to McCarron, he was missing Tyler Eifert and had a dinged up A.J. Green, but, without Dalton, the Bengals mustered two first downs in their seven first half drives. Two. And, the Bengals three touchdowns drives covered 67 yards...combined. The Bengals touchdown drives - thanks to turnovers and an 18 yard punt - averaged 22 yards. On the day, the offense put up just 242 yards of total offense, went 4-14 on third downs (28.6%), 0-1 on fourth downs and had one drive last longer than five plays. In fact, the Bengals had three plays which accounted for 104 yards, meaning their other 58 play calls collected 138 yards, or 2.4 yards per play. That can beat the 49ers and a bottom five defense. That won't beat the Denver Broncos, or any playoff team for that matter. As encouraging as McCarron's first start was, it must get better if the Bengals want to make a serious run in the playoffs.
The 49ers are a bad, bad, bad football team.
With the exception of a few offensive linemen, there is not a player on that offense who would start on the Bengals - or any middle of the road NFL team for that matter. While the saying "any given Sunday" can always ring true, the team the Bengals beat on Sunday was a good college football team. In fact, if there ever was a minor league football team, it would look a lot like the 2015 San Francisco 49ers. Blaine Gabbert and Shaun Draughn are backups at best. Anquan Boldin is past his prime (that is putting it nicely) and Torrey Smith is who Dennis Green thought he was - a one trick pony who can only run a go route.
The Bengals' offensive line was brutal and MUST improve if they want to win in Denver.
What happened to the run game of 2014? I know the 49ers knew the run was coming with McCarron making his first start, but they were still a bottom two run defense entering the game and the Bengals offensive line allowed the run game just 1.9 yards per carry (68 yards on 36 carries). Let me give you an idea of how bad this is. Jeremy Hill is 6'1". If he were to stand on the line of scrimmage and simply fall forward, he would get 1.9 yards per fall. Worse yet, the Bengals only turnover of the game (Hill's fumble), was the result of Andre Smith getting pushed into Hill's lap before he had a secure grasp on the football.
If the run blocking wasn't bad enough, McCarron was sacked four times, losing 18 yards. Throw in McCarron's six incompletions, and that means on 46 of the Bengals 61 snaps, they accumulated 50 yards, or less than 1.1 yards per play. That type of performance will get them blown off the field with Denver's top ranked defense.
The Defense did exactly what a good defense is supposed to do against a bad team.
As I said above, that was a minor league offense at best, but let's not discredit what the defense did. They did exactly what a good defense should do against a backup quarterback/offense. They shut the 49ers offense down, forced four turnovers and collected four sacks. Geno Atkins returned to his dominant self after a week off and put up a phenomenal stat line: 4 tackles, 3 for a loss, 2 sacks and 2 quarterback hits.
There were times in the first quarter where I was rooting for the 49ers offense; I just wanted to see a first down by someone, anyone!
Between the two teams, the first quarter contained seven drives and just four first downs. I was getting so bored I was rooting for anyone on either team to just cross the first down line. It got so bad in fact, I started hoping they would just line up the two punters at the 30 yard line and have a "punt off" for points. I would have liked the Bengals chances with Kevin Huber.
The Bengals clinched a playoff berth and can clinch a first round bye with a win this weekend.
For the second year in a row, the Bengals and Broncos meet up on Monday night with playoff implications hinging on the outcome. The Bengals have clinched their playoff spot, but they still have work to do for the division and a bye. A win on Sunday can secure the AFC North and a first round bye for the Bengals, their first since the 1988 Super Bowl season. Given the injuries this team has, that extra week off could do wonders.