After a very unenthusiastic finale to wrap up a franchise tying number of wins in a season, the Bengals have six days to prepare for what should be a highly entertaining, physical and emotional rubber match with their hated AFC North rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here is what we learned during the Bengals' "ho hum" victory over the Ravens.
The Bengals tied a franchise record with 12 wins
In 48 the Bengals organization has won 12 games on three occasions. The previous two occasions (1981 and 1988), the Bengals went on to the Super Bowl. What does this mean? Regardless of what happens Saturday, this was a very good season - the type Bengals fans have not experienced since the ‘80's - so enjoy it.
If Andy Dalton were healthy, the Bengals would be the number one seed in the AFC
There is no doubt in my mind, if Andy Dalton were healthy, the Bengals win in Denver (and likely against Pittsburgh). As a result, the Bengals would have been 13-3 or 14-2 and the number one seed. The AFC would be going through the Queen City if that were the case. Unfortunately, we are just left with a "what if" here.
The Bengals set a franchise record with just 279 points allowed (17.4 PPG)
This was not the best defense we have seen along the banks of the Ohio River - it was the quintessential "bend but don't break" defense - but statistically, Cincinnati has not seen a more stingy defense when it comes to surrendering points. Thanks to the Arizona Cardinals not showing up on Sunday, the Bengals lost their top overall ranking from points per game standpoint, but either way, 17.4 points per game is impressive. Holding the Steelers to 17 points on Saturday will go a long way to ending the Bengals' playoff drought.
Jeremy Hill woke up...hopefully just in time
All season long, Bengals fans (and fantasy owners everywhere), have been waiting to see the Jeremy Hill of 2014. It took until the 16th game, but with 96 yards on 16 carries - including a nice 38 yard touchdown run - Hill finally got on track Sunday with his best yards per carry outing (6.0). Hopefully he can carry this forward in to the playoffs, because if there is one way to keep the Steelers offense at bay, it is using the power running game to keep the ball away from Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
Geno Atkins is really good
He only had three tackles, but two were for a loss and one was a sack whereby he tossed the center and completely blew up Ryan Mallett. Atkins is the key cog in this defensive machine. When he is in the opponents backfield disrupting the running lanes and hitting the quarterback, this defense is really good.
Vontaze Burfict looks healthy
For the first time in what feels like forever, Burfict looks like the Burfict we remember from prior to his knee injury. He is flying to the ball, setting the tone on the defensive side and for the second time in three games, he contributed a big turnover. Turnovers will be key this Saturday and Burfict is one of those players who has a knack for creating them.
Leon Hall does not look healthy
Leon Hall has been a very good player for a very long time for this team. He is a great team guy, great locker room guy and great community guy. His comeback from two Achilles tears is nothing short of amazing and at times, he has played very well this year. Unfortunately, he looks old and banged up - so much so, Chris Lewis-Harris replaced him on Sunday because Ryan Mallett and a bunch of no name receivers were picking on him...and winning. With the Steelers receiving weapons, Hall is a liability this week and his playing time this weekend needs to be carefully considered and likely cut down.
If the Bengals cannot clean up their penalties, their stay in the postseason will be short again
The Bengals had 11 penalties on Sunday for 72 yards. E-L-E-V-E-N. That isn't good, and that will most assuredly result in an early offseason if they don't clean it up before Saturday. Against Ryan Mallett and the Ravens, you can give up 72 charity yards and still win. Against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, you cannot win with 11 penalties - especially dumb, drive extending (for the opposing offense) and driving killing (for the Bengals' offense) penalties.
The Bengals went an entire game without converting a single third down
There cannot be many instances where a team has zero third down conversions and wins. The good news for the Bengals is that they still won. The bad news is 0-9 on third down conversions is not encouraging with the playoffs starting in five days.
This Bengals' defense still concerns me
I know, they finished second in the NFL in points per game, but as I said above, this is the quintessential "bend but don't break" defense and in big moments, they have repeatedly failed. Here is my statement from last week:
"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 against this defense. Nor should we see third and tens being converted in overtime. Nor should we see Carson Palmer should driving 70 yards in one minute with zero timeouts."
Well, they didn't make me feel any better this week. Up 7-6, this vaunted defense let Ryan Mallett and a bunch of no names go 55 yards in less than two minutes to give up the lead right before half - with the Ravens getting the ball to start the half. They also let Mallett and his band of no names to convert 12 of their 20 of their third down conversions, or 60%...60 damned percent. That petrifies me.
Dre Kirkpatrick continues to frustrate
For what it is worth, Pro Football Focus ranked all 119 NFL corners and Kirkpatrick ranked 110th. While I don't believe he has been the ninth worst corner in the NFL, I agree that he has been disappointing - especially after all the glowing praise in the preseason. It seems like every big play this defense gives up is on Kirkpatrick's side - whether or not it is his fault, only he and the coaches know, but he gave up the big play in Denver right after Mike Nugent missed a field goal and this Sunday, he dropped an easy interception. Mallett threw a terrible pass along the sideline that hit Dre in the chest and he dropped it - an interception he could have taken back for six points. It was his second dropped interception this season.
Apparently "talking between the lines" for the Steelers means talking on Twitter and other media forums
After the Steelers beat the Dalton-less Bengals a few weeks back, Marcus Gilbert (someone who possesses zero playoff wins), Tweeted "All I want for Christmas is the Bengals. Would love to see them in the playoffs where they choke. The talking is done between the line." According to Mr. Gilbert, "between the lines" must include talking on Twitter. He and his Steeler brethren have been very vocal toward the Bengals on Twitter since that game and shortly after it was determined we would get a rematch, Mr. Gilbert was busy "talking between the lines," (aka, talking on Twitter) about how his prayers were answered. If for no other reason, I hope the Bengals destroy the Steelers on Saturday just to shut this guy up...a tackle who few outside of the Pittsburgh area have heard of.
According to Steelers fans, Steelers players, Steelers media and national media, the Bengals stand no chance on Saturday and there is little point in playing this game
Listening to talk radio, NFL shows and monitoring Twitter makes me wonder why the NFL is even bothering to play this game. According to most of the football world, the Steelers have already advanced to play the Broncos and are a quarter away from punching their ticket to the Super Bowl. The Bengals won't have to look far for extra motivation this week, I sure hope they are able to capitalize on it.
Many Bengals fans have zero confidence this week
Unfortunately, listening to local radio and interacting with the locals myself, many Bengals fans believe the result of this game is a forgone conclusion as well. With the Bengals woes in the playoffs, primetime and at home against the Steelers, I can see where the negativity is coming from, but are we that fickle of a fan base? Come on, Bengals fans.
Since Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011, Ben Roethlisberger has won as many playoff games as Dalton...zero
Don't tell this to the national media - after all, it wouldn't fit their predetermined stories - but since Dalton entered the NFL in 2011, Dalton has been to five playoffs in five years compared to Roethlisberger's three. And, while he has yet to win a game, Roethlisberger, like Dalton, has zero wins as well. In those appearances, Roethlisberger has more interceptions than touchdowns (3 to 2) and a quarterback rating of about 77.
For the second time in 10 years, the Bengals get the Steelers at PBS in the Wild Card game and for the second time, the Bengals will be without their starting quarterback
In 2005, Carson Palmer lasted all but two snaps. In all likelihood, that will be two more snaps than Andy Dalton will see on Saturday. I am sure I speak for all Bengals fans, just once it would be nice to get to play the Steelers in the playoffs with our starting quarterback.
For the fifth consecutive season and the sixth time in seven years, Bengals fans will get a chance to watch their team in the playoffs
Enjoy it. I get the sense Bengals fans have begun to take the playoffs for granted - as though getting there is not impressive and is a guarantee each year...think about what I just said. Think back to the mid ‘90's and would you ever think you would hear someone say that "Bengals fans have begun to take the playoffs for granted?" Yes, winning once you get there is the goal, but don't let the first round losses overshadow what is an amazing stretch of successful seasons.