The 2015 Bengals may have been the best team in Cincinnati football history. They shot off to an 8-0 start that featured some of the best performances we’ve seen from a team in Bengals stripes. There was the thriller in Baltimore with Tyler Eifert’s non-touchdown and A.J. Green’s two-touchdowns. Then there was the Kansas City game that saw the Bengals win 36-21 but only allow the Chiefs to score field goals... albeit seven of them. And, you can’t forget the comeback win against the Seahawks that saw the Bengals put up an unbelievable effort to overcome a 17 point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Seattle 27-24 in overtime. Many refer to it as the game that signaled Dalton had really taken the next step as it was clear his leadership and play helped the Bengals to claim the comeback win.
Unfortunately after a 10-2 start, Dalton fractured his thumb, and the rest is history, including a brutal playoff loss in which AJ McCarron nearly led the Bengals to victory before the team self destructed.
“I understand that when it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals the elephant in the room is what are you going to do in the postseason,” former Bengals safety and current CBS NFL analyst Solomon Wilcots told me this week. “But at the end of the day, still, we sit here 25, 26 years away from having won their last postseason game. They went through a stretch where they couldn’t spell playoffs and now they’ve been there five years in a row.”
It takes a really good football team to make it to the playoffs for five straight years. Only the Broncos, Packers and Patriots have joined the Bengals in all of the last five playoffs and there’s no denying those are all great teams.
“The Cincinnati Bengals should look at themselves, and rightfully so, as one of the best teams in the league. I think a lot of their problems, from what we saw with how the season ended, is a byproduct of not knowing how good you are,” Wilcots said.
“Teams are going to goad you into doing things so that they can get the advantage on the field because they don’t think they can beat you straight up. So they have to resort to other tactics to try to get you off your game.”
That’s essentially what we saw in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in January. During the regular season, the Bengals beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and then when the Steelers came to Cincinnati, Dalton went down with his injury on the first offensive drive. As McCarron entered his first meaningful NFL game, even the biggest optimist couldn’t have thought the Bengals were going to win. And so when the Steelers returned to Cincinnati just a few weeks later we saw a coach pull a player’s hair, coaches on the field when they shouldn’t have been and a concussion-inducing hit on which the legality can be debated. For what it’s worth, Wilcots says Ryan Shazier’s hit on Giovani Bernard was not a by-the-rules tackle. And, we know the NFL has now made its rules more clear to indicate as much.
“To me, that’s going to be the real critical test for the Bengals,” Wilcots said. “Knowing how good you are, knowing that teams believe they can’t beat you straight up, because you came back and beat Seattle. You nearly beat the Super Bowl Champions, at home, with your backup quarterback, on a Monday night. You are good. But people are going to poke and prod and try to derail you because they don’t believe they can match up with the talent that the Bengals have. And everyone knows it.
“So what do they do? They see if they can rattle the cage of a Vontaze Burfict or an Adam Jones. See if you can get them to self destruct, because they don’t believe they can beat them. I think that’s what the Bengals need to focus on: knowing how good they are and if you’re good, act like it.”
That’s some pretty great advice for the Bengals. They’re not just a good team. They’re a great team and a team capable of not just winning one playoff game, but going on a deep playoff run. Great teams, like the Bengals, need to rise above adversity and play the game they’re paid to play like professionals.
“Their biggest area is maturity. It’s about being a confident team,” Wilcots said. “You are the defending champion and it’s not easy to win the AFC North, by the way. It’s a tough division, it’s a physical division. But I think they are the class of the division because they are a deeper, more talented team than Pittsburgh. There’s only one position that Pittsburgh is better at and that’s at quarterback. That’s why teams in the division resort to antics, because in their heart and in their mind don’t believe that they’re good enough to go toe-to-toe with the Bengals and beat them.”
This year, while they’ve lost some key pieces, the Bengals have also added talented players with the ability to produce and help work toward another trip to the playoffs. It’s not easy to get to the playoffs, and you don’t start off the season as a playoff team. It will take another great year in Cincinnati for the Bengals to get a shot to win in the postseason. But, Wilcots believes they’ll get there and repeat as division champions.
“They’re the class of the division, they’re the most talented team, they’re the defending champion, now they have to play with greater maturity. Play with class and professionalism,” Wilcots said. “Don’t beat yourself. Pittsburgh didn’t beat them in the playoff game, they beat themselves.”