It was the final game of what's been one of the best seasons this franchise has ever enjoyed, and it culminated with another season sweep of Baltimore. That was thanks in large part to touchdowns scored by three different Bengals, which has been common for Cincy this season, as NFL.com's Chris Wesseling notes:
Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green and Jeremy Hill each scored versus Baltimore, leaving Cincinnati as the only NFL team with three skill-position players to score at least 10 touchdowns. The trio has accounted for 68 percent of Cincinnati's 50 touchdowns this season. Eifert's return is huge after missing three of the past four games with injuries. He has been one of the league's most reliable red-zone threats in a breakout campaign.
Wesseling also pointed out how dominant the Bengals' trio of terror on defense has helped carry Cincinnati to the regular-season finish line.
That trio is complemented by a defensive threesome of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict. Houston's J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus (28) are the only tandem with more sacks than the 24.5 generated by Atkins and Dunlap. Burfict turned in his best game of the season, racking up 12 tackles, an interception, two passes defensed and two quarterback hits. He hasn't lost a step after undergoing microfracture knee surgery in the offseason.
However, while a 24-16 win is nice, the offense had a lot of issues in getting those points on the board. In fact, Cincinnati didn't do so much as even convert one third down Sunday.
Per STATS, this was the first time #Bengals won a game with no third down conversions since 1995. Beat Indy 24-21 despite going 0 for 9— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonCMG) January 3, 2016
As John Breech notes, that's not going to help his former team end their playoff drought, and this season won't feel validated without at least one playoff win.
The Bengals (12-4) tied their franchise record for wins by beating the Ravens. However, that's a record that no one's going to care about if they lose in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth straight year. The Bengals should probably figure out how to convert a third down before next week: They went 0-for-9 against the Ravens.
(Marvin) Lewis still hasn’t won a playoff game. This is his 13th season, and he’s 0-6. This time Andy Dalton hopes to be coming back from a broken thumb on his throwing hand. He’ll see a hand specialist today and hopes to get his cast removed and have enough range of motion to play a playoff game and exorcise recent playoff demons. Dalton’s pushing it, though, to think he can be normal and pick up where he left off 27 days after breaking the thumb in the first place. "Andy’s very optimistic," Lewis told me Saturday. "I feel he’s got an opportunity to play next weekend—but we’re going to err on the side of caution."
The problem for Cincinnati: While backup AJ McCarron has played well in Dalton’s absence, it’ll be hard enough to win a shootout with Ben Roethlisberger if Dalton’s on the other side of the field. That just adds more pressure on Dalton to come back and win his first playoff game after losing the playoff opener in his first four NFL seasons.
If the Bengals are going to win this Saturday's showdown, they need to steal some possessions by forcing turnovers, as ESPN's Coley Harvey writes.
Make forcing turnovers a top priority. When the season began, the Bengals' defense was adamant about making turnover creation its chief concern. After finishing 16th in turnover margin last season, the Bengals were third this season. Their 21 interceptions were the league's third most behind Carolina (24) and Kansas City (22). The week of McCarron's first career start, the Bengals' defensive playmakers were pressured to get turnovers to keep San Francisco's offense off the field and consistently give McCarron opportunities. Across the past three games, Cincinnati has forced seven turnovers. In that same span, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been picked off six times. He threw three interceptions in the teams' first meeting this season back in November.
As it stands, Pittsburgh is going to be favored in this matchup, but not by much.
I feel bad for the Bengals. This is their best overall team in more than two decades. Dalton has been so good this year, he should be in the top five in the MVP vote. I fear they could be one-and-done for the fifth straight year. Fans question Dalton's ability to rise to the occasion, but this time health is the issue. Had Dalton not injured his thumb, the Bengals probably would have finished as the No. 1 seed and be at the top of this list. The roster is excellent, but we just don't know what they'll have at the most important position.
Fellow NFL analyst Mike Sando notes how ESPN's FPI model has the Bengals as just the fifth-best team in the playoffs, but would have them higher if/when Dalton comes back.
FPI rank: seventh (higher if Andy Dalton starts)
EPA rankings: sixth offense, eighth defense
Comment: The Bengals would climb in these rankings with a healthy Andy Dalton back in the lineup and in rhythm, but they cannot be sure the quarterback will play, let alone quickly recapture his pre-injury form. Cincinnati posted a 10-2 record, while averaging 27.8 points per game when Dalton was the quarterback. They have gone 2-2 with a 21.3-point scoring average in games when backup AJ McCarron was the primary quarterback. Now they face a Pittsburgh team that scored 30-plus points against Seattle, Denver and these Bengals over a four-week span in the second half of the season.