Doneal Berry may have asked the question of all Bengals questions during our recent Facebook Live session. The one major tease about the team and their regular season success since 2011 is the seemingly unending heartache that has followed with each of the previous five first-round playoff losses. So, will the Bengals’ playoff curse be lifted this season?
Bengals fans, while united in their love of the franchise, are also divided on beliefs with auras surrounding the team. Some believe in "The Curse of Paul Brown", while others buy into an issue with primetime games, and then there's those who scoff at the notion of a curse or anything other than the Bengals' on-field ability playing into their primetime and playoff losses. Regardless of which side you sit on, the man viewed as "the Queen City savior", Marvin Lewis, still has an 0-7 playoff record as the Bengals' head coach.
Even more painful than the most recent five playoff losses is the increased expectations and hope that came with each passing season. The rookie years of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in 2011 brought a pleasant surprise, while the career years of 2013 and 2015 also gave hope to Who Dey Nation that a now 25-year playoff drought would be remedied.
However, the way last season ended was downright cruel. Part of the cruelty was in Dalton's inability to see the season through because of a fractured thumb, but the apex came in the last minute and a half in the Wild Card round. Not only did the Bengals snatch defeat out of the hands of victory, they did so against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. Even with backup quarterback AJ McCarron in the game, who played admirably (212 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception), the Bengals seemed to be on the verge of storybook success, but gave it away in a form that will likely live in NFL folklore.
With a franchise record-tying 12 regular season wins and the embattled Dalton having such a great year, the 2015 campaign finally seemed like the year Cincinnati would break through. Even with Peyton Manning writing his own NFL fairytale, if the Bengals got past Pittsburgh, the team still had a decent chance to move through the AFC (yes, I know Tom Brady still plays in the league).
For those who have read my work here at Cincy Jungle since 2011, I hate to sound like a broken record, but be prepared nevertheless. The Bengals lost five games in 2015, including the playoffs, and four of them were on the primetime stage. The only win in the five tries was against the reeling Browns on Thursday Night Football. And, Dalton, even with his renaissance last year, was still 1-2 in primetime.
Excuses are prevalent as to why this continues to occur, ranging from "of course, that's when you play the best teams," to "it's a simple coincidence". While there is truth to each, "the curse" simply won't be broken until Lewis and his Bengals learn how to beat the best teams in the most stressful of situations.
And that is what's frustrating about the Bengals: they have one of the most talented rosters in the league, yet no one believes in them because of their performances in the big games. Fans get testy about the national accusation, but part of the anger stems from the deep-rooted admission that there is truth in the sentiment that they don't play well when it matters the most.
Looking at the 2016 team, there aren't many reasons to think they can't get over the playoff hump, even with some personnel losses--both among coaches and players. However, it's those intangible factors that play a role in what their destiny will be this year. Cincinnati has four more primetime games currently scheduled this season, and while I don't want to place a ridiculous level of importance on that specific 25 percent of their schedule, chronic thorns-in-their-side in the form of the Dolphins, Steelers, and Texans comprise three of those four games.
It's a bold proclamation, but if the Bengals can show themselves and their fans that they are immune to the brighter lights, it could be a significant indicator of them breaking the curse. They'll need to maintain their composure, which they were unable to do to end the 2015 season, and they'll need to play the kind of football they're capable of playing when not on primetime. If we still see the same mind-boggling mistakes in primetime that we don't see on Sundays at 1 p.m., I'd still cling to cautious optimism as January approaches.