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Week 16 Bengals vs Broncos: What We Learned

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No matter how you slice it, Monday night's loss was a hard pill to swallow. We learned a bunch, but not all was bad.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

They say more is learned from a loss/failure than is learned from a win/success. I for one, believe that to be true, and we sure learned a bunch on Monday night...not all of which was bad. We will start with the bad and then lead ourselves into the regular season finale with the positives.

The Bengals lost a huge opportunity

There is no way around it, the Bengals had the two seed within their grasp and they let it slip away. More importantly, they had the opportunity to give Andy Dalton another week to rest and heal. And, while the two seed is not lost, that could come back to haunt this team if they exit the playoffs before Dalton gets a chance to finish what he started.

The game turned on the Mike Nugent missed field goal

Up 14-0 with 2:31 seconds left in the first half, the Bengals had the Broncos on the ropes. They were dominating the first half with 38 offensive snaps and 205 yards of offense compared to 10 plays and just 24 yards from the Broncos. They had the crowd booing the home team and they were setting up for what should be a routine field goal in the high altitude - a field goal that would likely send the team from Cincinnati to the half with a commanding three score lead. But then Nugent pushed the kick wide right in the thin Denver air, igniting a spark in an otherwise cold and dead stadium (and Broncos team), and providing some hope to the locals and the local football team. Until that kick sailed wide right, the Bengals were in complete control, the crowd was out of it and they were doing everything Bengals fans have wanted to see for the past five years - play in primetime the way they are capable of playing. With one kick of the leg, momentum, and ultimately the game, changed.

For all the Nugent apologists, I hear you. No, that is not the only reason the Bengals lost Monday night - there was a litany of errors that lead to that loss - but it 100% changed the momentum of that game and the atmosphere in that stadium. For the first time since the opening kick, the Broncos had hope. And, more importantly, for the first time in the evening, the Bengals had some doubt, and I don't think for one second that the dreaded "here we go again" thought didn't creep into the minds of some of the players.

Unfortunately, we have seen this before. If the game is on the line, Nugent, for the most part, has come through. Where he struggles is the field goals which we the fans (and possibly him?) take for granted. The field goals which make the game a two or three possession game. In other words, the field goals just like Monday night. If Nugent makes that kick, I believe we wake up Tuesday morning talking about the Bengals as the number two seed, with a healthy AJ McCarron and an extra week of rest to try and get Andy Dalton back on the field. Instead, we are faced with a quarterback situation that has quickly deteriorated to a point where seeing Keith Wenning in a playoff game is a legit possibility.

When you have a quarterback making his second NFL start, on the road, in a big game, his teammates must step up around him...AJ McCarron's teammates let him down

For the third game in a row, McCarron played solid and played well enough to win. He guided the Bengals on two impressive, long, time-consuming touchdown drives to capture a 14-0 lead none of us thought we would see. However, big lead or not, to win against a quality opponent (on the road no less) with a backup quarterback, the rest of the team must raise their level of play to make up for the loss of their leader. The Bengals did that for 27.5 minutes on Monday night, and it showed. They failed miserably in the remaining 37+ minutes.

After a good first half, the offensive line got little push in the run game. They allowed a lot of pressure on McCarron in the pocket. Hue Jackson got conservative. Paul Guenther didn't make adjustments. The defensive line lost their push and the receivers started dropping passes. With a backup quarterback, those things cannot happen if you expect to beat a good team.

Bengals fans are blind and Twitter was waiting to tee off on Russell Bodine for a bad snap

Much was made of Bodine's snapping issues in the preseason (and rightfully so), and there have been some minor gaffes thus far in 2015, but the final play of the game was not on Bodine. According to Twitter it was, but common sense and a decent pair of eyes would tell you otherwise. Watch the tape, that snap was about six inches off McCarron's sternum - aka, the middle of his chest. It hit McCarron in the hands...both of them. The loss is not on McCarron, there is a plenty of blame to share. But regardless of how much you want to blame Bodine, that play (and that loss) certainly was not on him.

Andy Dalton's line of scrimmage adjustments are sorely missed

For as well as McCarron has played, the experience of Dalton cannot be understated. On numerous occasions McCarron should have checked out of plays - plays Dalton would have checked out of - and he did not. The one that sticks out most to me was a second and two play in the third quarter. Denver dropped both safeties into the box and McCarron didn't check out of the run. Instead of checking to a pass, Hill went up the middle for no gain and one play later the Bengals punted. These are the type of things we (the fans and media) have taken for granted when it comes to Dalton. Whether you want to admit it or not, he is one of the best at making adjustments at the line of scrimmage and that cannot be made up for with McCarron or any NFL backup.

It is possible that Keith Wenning could be your starting quarterback in the playoffs

Monday night's loss hurt the Bengals chances of getting Andy Dalton back for their first playoff game, and thanks to the last play of the game, it made the thought of seeing Keith Wenning take snaps in a playoff game more realistic than any of us would like to hope. While McCarron's sprained wrist is on his non-throwing hand and is said to be day-to-day, if he plays this weekend and aggravates the injury, or proves ineffective with the injury, you have a real possibility of seeing Wenning being responsible for trying to end the Bengals' 25 year playoff drought.

I don't trust this defense (or Paul Guenther)

Yes, surrendering 17 points in regulation (on the road) is pretty good, and they may be ranked first in scoring, but when push comes to shove and the Bengals need a defensive stand, I have zero trust in this unit. If this defense is what we are told they are - a very good defense - then Brock Osweiler should not be able to come back from 14 down and put up 390 yards of offense against this defense. Nor should we see third and 10 being converted in overtime. Nor should we see Carson Palmer driving 70 yards in one minute with zero timeouts. Yes, this defense has statistically played well this season, but in crunch time, when stops are needed, they have not answered the call.

Paging A.J. Green...''

Nugent's kick. McCarron's fumble. The defensive collapse. None of this would have mattered if one of the best receivers hadn't disappeared in the second half or didn't stop running his route...again. I am often critical of Green, and it has nothing to do with my liking/disliking him - in fact, I think he is a very good receiver and an even better person. But, how many times have we had the discussion surrounding his effort/lack thereof? Effort shouldn't have to be addressed on more than one or two occasions at the NFL level. At this point, it is an issue with Green. Asking a receiver to not give up on his route is not asking much. But with Green, it seems like this conversation happens a few times per season.  In the past, his lack of effort has cost the Bengals interceptions and games. His lack of effort on Monday may have cost the Bengals the number two seed and their best chance at a Super Bowl run since 1988. We are constantly told how good Green is and how he is the Bengals "guy" when the game is on the line. Well, if that is the case, he needs to start showing up in these situations. At the moment, my memory of Green with the game on the line is filled with instances of him either disappearing, or making critical errors: fumble in Week 17 in Pittsburgh (2014) on what looked to be a game winning/tying drive; fumble against Houston on what looked to be another game winning drive; stopping his route in Denver on what could have also been a game winning drive. If Green is who we say he is, he needs to start playing like it.

Only Vontaze Burfict gets called for that unnecessary roughness penalty...but he has earned his reputation

It is hard to complain about Burfict getting called for borderline penalties, after all, he has earned his reputation. That being said, the unnecessary roughness penalty in overtime was bogus and was only called because it was Burfict. Burfict is simply trying to strip the ball and the Denver player flopped. In my opinion, that call should never be made in that situation. That being said, Burfict has to be aware of his reputation and not put himself in any situation where the referee can make that call. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered, but giving up 15 free yards sure didn't help.

Two defensive plays and one defensive sequence stuck in my craw Monday night - all of which occurred in the fourth quarter or overtime

In order of occurrence

1) Reggie Nelson's terrible angle on C.J. Anderson's 39 yard touchdown run

Nelson had the chance to make that run a fairly inconsequential three or four yard gain, instead, as a result of a terrible angle (combined with some other lackluster tackling), Nelson allowed Anderson to get outside for the go ahead score. Those kind of big run plays are one the Bengals' defense has surrendered far too often in big games.

2) Vinnie Rey's coverage on third and 10 in overtime

On the first possession in overtime, the Bengals forced two incompletions in less than 15 seconds and had a chance to get great field position with only a field goal needed to win the game. All they had to do was hold on third and 10. Instead, a Bengals linebacker (Rey) was beat in coverage by a tight end (Owen Daniels) for 11 yards. How Rey let Daniels get past the line is beyond me, but that third down conversion sprung the Broncos to their game winning field goal.

3) Only rushing four with the game on the line

With the Bengals defensive line, I am generally ok with this tactic, and earlier in the game, this worked just fine. However, at the end of the game, the Bengals defensive line was clearly gassed and not able to pressure Osweiler with only four rushers. On third and three from the Bengals 37, a stop would have forced the Broncos to try a 54 yard field goal with a kicker fresh off one of the ultimate shanks in NFL history. Rather than bring some extra rushers, Paul Guenther elected to rush just four and watch Osweiler convert a crucial third down. The same scenario occurred two plays later on second and 10 from the Bengals' 32 yard line when Guenther again brought just four, allowing Osweiler plenty of time to find Demaryius Thomas for a 12 yard gain and put Denver in position for a fairly easy go ahead field goal.

Geno Atkins did not show up on the stat sheet

As a result of carrying the sickle cell trait, Atkins was closely monitored all game long and his playing time was kept to 60 percent of the defensive snaps (down 13% from his average snap count of 73%). Despite the reduced snap count, Atkins was relatively ineffective. Whether this was the result of his condition or just an off game, is undetermined, but despite being in the backfield a few times, he did not appear on the stat sheet. No tackles, no assisted tackles, no sacks, no nothing. I thought Atkins would dominate the Broncos' interior line, much like he did the 49ers the week prior, but unfortunately that was not the case. This defense is nowhere near as effective when Atkins is kept in check and on Monday night, he was kept in check.

Every tight end record would be endangered if Owen Daniels played the Bengals every week

Owen Daniels has killed the Bengals over the years as a member of the Texans, Ravens and Broncos and did so again on Monday - especially in crucial situations. Owens' 60.6 yards per game average against the Bengals is his highest against any opponent whom he has played more than twice. In fact, against the Bengals, Daniels has averaged 5.2 receptions, 60.6 yards and .40 touchdowns per game. While that may not sound crazy, think about this for a moment - the best tight end in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez, averaged 4.9 receptions, 56.0 yards and .41 touchdowns per game for his career...meaning, if Daniels played 17 seasons like Gonzalez, and played every game against the Bengals, he would break the 14-time Pro Bowler's records for yards (15,127) and receptions (1,325) and end his career just three touchdowns shy of Gonzalez's 111.

If the Bengals made halftime adjustments, they weren't any good

This coaching staff has been plagued for years by their halftime adjustments, or non-adjustments, and Monday was no different. Take a look at the half by half stats below:

Bengals


Broncos

1st Half

2nd Half + OT


1st Half

2nd Half + OT

1st Downs

13

9


1st Downs

2

20

Plays

39

31


Plays

17

46

Yards

205

89


Yards

84

306

Yds/play

5.3

2.9


Yds/play

4.9

6.7

Punts

0

5


Punts

2

3

Points

14

3


Points

3

17

TOP

21:14

16:14


TOP

8:46

19:04

3 & Outs

0

3


3 & Outs

1

3

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Bengals lost.

Marvin Lewis will take a lot of heat for that loss - all of which is misdirected

A head coach's job is to make sure his team is prepared for a game and put the team in a position to succeed. Lewis has received a lot of criticism over the years - mostly deserved - for his team looking ill prepared and overwhelmed in big games, not to mention their penchant for coming out flat. That was not the case on Monday night. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Bengals' offense came out and marched down throat of the number one defense - to the tune of 170 yards and two touchdowns on their first two drives while eating up more than 15 minutes of clock. The Bengals' defense was just as hot, surrendering just 24 yards on the Broncos' first two drives. On their third and final drive of the half, the Bengals set themselves up for a makeable field goal. That sort of start tells me the team was very well prepared and the head coach did his job. A missed field goal is not on the coach. If you want to complain about the halftime adjustments, I agree with you, but that is on the coordinators, not the head coach. The other issues: tackling, fumbling, stopping on routes, etc. that is on the players. In some of the previous big game/primetime failures, I would listen to the "blame Marvin" rhetoric, not for this game.

The Bengals gave all their critics exactly what they wanted

It may not have been Andy Dalton behind center and the Bengals may not have been expected to do much with McCarron starting, but the way that game ended - blowing a lead and fumbling a snap in overtime - plays right into the hands of all the Bengals critics - they crumble when the lights come on and can't win the big games. I for one, don't believe that is true of this 2015 team, but with a 1-3 primetime record, it doesn't matter what I think, the critics can - and will - run with that.

As I said at the onset, not all was bad on Monday. Below are the good and the things we fans (and the team) can hang our hats on going into the final game and the playoffs.

AJ McCarron can start in the NFL

No, there is not a quarterback controversy in Cincinnati, but for the third game in a row, McCarron played a solid game of football. If not for Nugent's missed kick, McCarron and the Bengals likely would have had a 17-0 halftime lead, or at least a 17-3 lead. McCarron won't be the long term starter in Cincinnati anytime soon, but he has the ability to start in the NFL and there are more than a handful of teams who would love to have McCarron over their current options.

The Bengals have three primetime losses by 10 total points

There are no moral victories, but take a look at the Bengals three primetime losses. They lost to the AFC South leading Texans because they fumbled deep in Texans territory on what looked like a game winning drive. They lost on the road to Arizona - the best team in the NFL in my opinion - on a last second field goal. And they lost to the second best team in the AFC, on the road, in overtime, with a quarterback making his second start. A team, who, oh by the way, also beat the AFC's top seed in the same stadium. Close losses don't help fans feel better, but, with what I saw in Arizona and Denver, I am 100 percent confident this team can compete, and beat, any team in the NFL this year.

Tyler Kroft has impressed me

The only good thing to come from Tyler Eifert's injury is the emergence of Kroft in the passing game. He is not the athlete Eifert is, but he is a solid pass catching tight end who can be a weapon down the stretch and in the future. After zero catches (and just one target) in his first 10 games, Kroft now has five straight games with a catch and has compiled 9 of his 11 receptions and 108 of his 129 yards since Eifert went down.

The offensive line played well - much better than last week

They let McCarron down in the second half - particularly in overtime - but the line was significantly better than they were in San Francisco the week before. They were embarrassed last week and were no doubt motivated by their poor performance. Going up against the top defensive unit, in a hostile environment and performing the way they did, was encouraging to me. In my opinion, they answered a big challenge.

Jeremy Hill wasn't great, but he was effective in the first half

His numbers (19 carries for 63 yards - 3.3 YPC) were not overly impressive, but he was going against the number one run defense and in the first half, he was picking up four or five yards chunks and was very effective. In the second half, for whatever reason, the Bengals ran more out of the shotgun, which is not Hill's forte, and as a result, his effectiveness dipped. Getting Hill going in the playoffs will be key, and I think this was a good and encouraging step. Part of his second half ineffectiveness could have been due to Ryan Hewitt leaving the game in the first half with a knee injury.

I like the Bengals chances if they play the Broncos again

It is hard for most Bengals fans to see the positive after such a deflating loss, but Monday gave me confidence that if the Bengals play the Broncos again, they can beat them - with Dalton or McCarron - especially if they have Tyler Eifert. The Broncos are good, but the Bengals' offense and defense had them on the ropes and I think they will finish the job if they meet again.

The Bengals lost control of the number two seed, but the two seed is still a possibility

Is it likely Denver will lose to San Diego? No, but I don't put anything past Phillip Rivers. If he is on, he can beat any team on any day. If that happens, the Bengals just need to do their job against Ryan Mallett and the Baltimore Ravens and they would get the first round bye they so desperately covet and need.

The Bengals are 11-4

It sure as hell would have been nice to win; 12-3 is better than 11-4, but the Bengals are still having a great season. And, while I would have loved to see this team get to 13 wins and break the franchise record, a 12-4 record would be awesome...and may just carry some playoff luck. Both Bengals teams to reach the 12 win mark (1981, 1988) went on to reach the Super Bowl....maybe there is some luck here with 12 wins!