There’s a growing list of unanswered questions heading into the offseason for the Cincinnati Bengals. That much is obvious.
Will Marvin Lewis remain in Cincinnati and if so, what’s his role? Is he posturing for a better deal (ala, 2011) or has he had enough? What is AJ McCarron’s status and will that have any impact on Andy Dalton? There are urgent questions on the offensive line (don’t get complacent with recent performances) and linebacker. Did Tyler Kroft complete his transition as the next Tyler Eifert? Where does Eifert go? Will William Jackson III, quickly becoming Cincinnati’s top defensive back, replace God as the creation of all things? I’m a little high on the guy. Will Carlos Dunlap ever stop dancing between snaps?
Those questions will have answers attached to them over time. Cincinnati (6-9 and eliminated from the postseason) had one meaningless game to play on Sunday.
And it didn’t play out as expected.
With just more than 12 minutes remaining in the season, and perhaps the Marvin Lewis era, Cincinnati was barely functioning on offense while the defense was frustratingly having issues defending passes over the middle. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed passes to Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro for 10 and 11 yards respectively.
I know there are no more healthy linebackers, but cover the middle!
The clock was ticking... 10:46, 10:45, 10:44.
After a minimal three-yard Alex Collins run, Flacco found Campanaro over the middle for 10 more yards. A minimal swing pass, a defensive penalty (12 men on the field) and an incomplete pass later, Baltimore celebrated their first lead of the game on MIke Wallace’s six-yard touchdown reception.
Despite eight minutes remaining and Cincinnati’s surmountable three-point deficit against a vulnerable Ravens squad, a baser instinct kicked in. As a Bengals fan who celebrated the 80s, survived the 90s, and enjoyed the roller coaster Marvin Lewis era, the instinct to run away and pretend this game stopped existing was strong. They were going to screw it up. They always screw it up. I plugged my ears with my beefy fingers and mumbled song lyrics not unlike “la, la, la”.
Look. Baltimore grinned at their 27-24 lead with 8:48 on the clock and they should. They knew it was over. Andy Dalton would throw an interception, or throw it away on fourth down. A block would be missed. A weird call issued. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of time for Cincinnati to recover and win; the deficit was only within one possession; a field goal, at minimum, required the Ravens to score again. These were not insuperable scenarios.
Yet, for the Bengals, the odds saturated pessimism. History supports this. We’re talking about a a team that blew a comfortable 17-point lead against the Steelers, a fourth-quarter lead against Tennessee, and a 14-point halftime advantage over the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers. You can thank a dysfunctional Bengals offense for these second half meltdowns, from no halftime adjustments, injuries, and questionable player management that relegated John Ross and Tyler Boyd to Marvin Lewis’s doghouse.
Cincinnati’s response was conservative, calling Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard on consecutive runs that only generated four yards... 8:51, 8:50, 8:49. Ravens linebacker Matt Judon delayed his blitz on third-and-six, penetrating Cincinnati’s offensive line and dropping Andy Dalton for a nine-yard loss. The clock dropped below seven minutes. It’s fourth down. Cincinnati had to punt. Baltimore reached midfield on their ensuing possession. Save for a Javorius Allen 19-yard run, Baltimore couldn’t mount a threat against Cincinnati’s defense. Sam Koch dropped his eighth punt inside Cincinnati’s 15-yard line.
With less than three minutes remaining, Cincinnati opened with a first down on their own 15-yard line.
Andy Dalton, a legend in the making, accumulates a pair of first downs with passes to Boyd, and A.J. Green. A Brandon Carr pass interference put Cincinnati on their own 43 with 1:53 remaining. Two plays later, Eric Weddle snags a Dalton pass around on Baltimore’s 32-yard line. There it is! Cincinnati loses another game. Why do they keep doing this shi... Wait, what? A defensive hold on Marlon Humphrey.
Bengals have a first down on Baltimore’s 47-yard line with 1:13 on the clock. An illegal shift slugged Cincinnati back across midfield. Back-to-back incomplete passes, and a three-yard nothing pass to Tyler Kroft setup a fourth-and-12 from the Ravens 49-yard line with 53 seconds remaining.
The fate of two teams was on the line.
Andy Dalton, the myth, takes the shotgun snap and pivots on his fifth step. Striding forward into great protection, Dalton unleashes a fastball to a wide-open Tyler Boyd around the Ravens 20-yard line.
“We caught them in the wrong defense,” said Boyd via Bengals.com. “I saw the seam and Andy delivered the ball. It got so quiet. I thought there was a penalty.” Boyd spun around and became a world class sprinter, avoiding collapsing defenders to score a 49-yard touchdown, giving Cincinnati a 31-24 lead and an eventual win.
THE WIN THAT MATTERED
Cincinnati’s 7-9 record translates to another January without the playoffs. And it was a difficult year. Injuries crushed the defense, the offensive coordinator was fired after two games, and Marvin Lewis’ departure has been a distracting topic of conversation.
Yet, Sunday’s win mattered. Buffalo will make its first postseason appearance in 18 years. Back then, Doug Flutie was their quarterback and Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas was still on the roster. This game mattered in Buffalo.
GINGA TO BOYD! 6 Points!— Buffalo Fanatics (@BuffFanatics) January 1, 2018
We coming for you Marrone!!
Drought. Broke. ✔️ pic.twitter.com/6B2AErra8L
This game may have mattered in Cincinnati, and not for any practical reason. Players on this roster are prideful, exercised with great kids that want to do right by each other and their coaches. They played hard. They played to win. There was a significant difference in talent against better teams, but Cincinnati left it on the field. Despite the faction of fans that want losses to improve Cincinnati’s draft position (an argument you can’t disregard out of hand), you should be proud of these players. Unsure of Marvin Lewis’ plans, they wanted to give him a sendoff. No one really knows how the Lewis story will play out, but many want him to stay.
“He’s the right guy for the right team,” said LaFell and several of his teammates agreed.
“He’s my coach,” said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
When the Cincinnati Bengals won three straight at the end of 2008, it gave them momentum to win 10 games the following season. After going 2-11 in 2010, Cincinnati won two of its last three with a couple of scrubs like Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson. The momentum gave those core players confidence and five consecutive years qualifying for the playoffs.
How a team ends a season can impact the next season, which is especially true for the Bengals. Cincinnati needed this win over the Ravens; they knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs, got their revenge from a September beating, and younger players like Boyd, Tyler Kroft, William Jackson, Darqueze Dennard, and even Christian Westerman, are entering the offseason with a lot of confidence.
And that matters.