The holidays have not been good to the Cincinnati Bengals.
In fact, Cincinnati has only played three games during this most festive of seasons, and has lost all three.
It all began in 1989, when the Bengals took on Minnesota on Christmas Day with a playoff berth on the line. Then, in its only Thanksgiving Day appearance, Cincinnati saw an already disappointing season continue to spiral downwards in the Meadowlands.
Finally, a Christmas Eve game against the Houston Texans last year marked the low point in the Bengals’ first losing season since 2010.
Cincinnati went into Minneapolis with a record of 8-7. A victory on Christmas Day would put the Bengals into the playoffs as the second AFC wild card. A loss would put Pittsburgh in for the first time in five years.
Instead, it was the Vikings who punched their ticket to the playoffs with a 29-21 victory that gave them the NFC North title and eliminated both the defending AFC champion Bengals and the Green Bay Packers from contention.
But Cincinnati did not go down easily. Despite five field goals from Rich Karlis and a swarming defense that forced the Bengals into six turnovers, Cincinnati had stormed back from a 19-0 deficit to pull within one point at 22-21 early in the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason, who finished with 31 completions on 54 attempts despite getting sacked six times, threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Holman on the third play of the second half. Esiason then combined with Craig Taylor on an 18-yarder scoring strike with 8:49 remaining to get the Bengals close.
Wade Wilson had gotten off to a hot start for the Vikings, and had accumulated 264 yards passing in the first two periods alone. But the Bengals held Wilson to just 39 yards in the second half before penalties proved to be their undoing.
After the Taylor touchdown, Minnesota put together a 67-yard drive, aided by 27 yards in penalties, that culminated with a one-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to backup tight end Brent Novoselsky with 4:17 left and provided the final margin.
The win gave the Vikings their first division title since 1980 and dropped the Bengals into last place in the AFC Central, a division that produced three of the AFC's five playoff teams.
"We played as hard and as well as we could," Bengals coach Sam Wyche said. "The Vikings also played well and I think they'll do well in the playoffs."
Unfortunately, Minnesota ran into a red-hot San Francisco 49ers team in the first round of the playoffs, and dropped a 41-13 decision at Candlestick Park. That game was the beginning of the most dominant playoff run in NFL history for the 49ers, who outscored their opponents 126-26 en route to their fourth Super Bowl victory.
And will this Christmas Day meeting against the Vikings was close and carried meaning for both teams, the Bengals’ lone foray into the Thanksgiving Day festivities was neither.
The game had all of the excitement of a turkey that has been left in the oven for way too long. New York’s Brad Smith ran for one touchdown, returned a kickoff for another touchdown and 200 yards of total offense in leading the Jets for a 26-10 victory.
The Bengals did manage to own a 7-3 advantage at the half, but costly mistakes proved to be their undoing. Carson Palmer threw two interceptions in the first half to kill a pair of promising drives, and a muffed punt in the second half gave the Jets excellent field position that led to a score.
Palmer finished the day with just 17 completions on 39 attemps for 135 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Chad Ochocinco led the Bengals’ receivers with four catches for 41 yards and Jordan Shipley added 38 yards and accounted for the Bengals’ only score.
It was another in a string of miserable performances for Cincinnati.
Terrell Owens, in his first and only season with the Bengals, called his own team “terrible” after an embarrassing loss to Buffalo the week before, while Ochocinco, in a conference call with New York reporters, said of the Bengals’ collective problems, “Where do I start?”
Cincinnati’s final, and most recent, holiday experience came just last year, when the Bengals dropped a 12-10 decision to the Houston Texans on Christmas Eve. Cincinnati came within a Randy Bullock missed field goal of escaping Houston’s NRG Stadium with a victory.
It looked like Cincinnati would not need Bullock’s help when quarterback Andy Dalton hooked up with Brandon LaFell on an 86-yard scoring strike with 10:45 left in the fourth quarter. The play marked the Bengals’ first fourth-quarter touchdown since the Week 8 game against the Redskins in London, and was Dalton’s longest touchdown pass of his NFL career.
But Cincinnati’s defense, in a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again this year, quickly lost composure and allowed the Texans’ offense to drive right down the field for the go-ahead score. Margus Hunt did block the extra point to put the Bengals in a position for a win at the buzzer, but Bullock’s kick sailed wide right.
“These close games like this we haven’t been able to get that one play or that one score that’s helped us win,” Dalton said after yet another disappointing defeat. “This is another example of it and this is the way the season has gone this year.”
And this is the way the season is going this year, as well. But there is still hope, and it all begins with Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns. While the holidays have not been good to the Bengals, it is past time for them to take control of their own destiny.