Was San Diego an aberration or a preview?
A question so innocent with ramifications that not only dictates Cincinnati's final four games this season, but probabilities in which the Bengals can secure their first postseason win of the season -- reaching the playoffs is no longer the bottom line, a playoff win is required or this season is a loss... anything after that is icing.
When Clint Boling suffered a season-ending injury, the Bengals shifted their offensive line placing Andrew Whitworth at left guard (where he played earlier in his career), Anthony Collins at left tackle while leaving Kyle Cook, Mike Pollak and Andre Smith at their customary spots to the right of Whitworth (Smith didn't start last week but quickly entered the game when Boling departed).
It was a beautiful song sung by football gods.
Had Andy Dalton not taken two victory-formation knees to end the game in San Diego, the Bengals would have set a season-high with 166 yards rushing while nudging their 4.6 yard/rush average against the 4.7-yard average against the Miami Dolphins. Damn, Dalton. He can't do anything right (that's a joke for you super-serious people).
Cincinnati could be using the same configuration against the Indianapolis Colts this weekend. Boling is gone for the year and Kevin Zeitler, despite being a limited participant on Thursday and Friday, is questionable with a foot injury that he suffered against the Baltimore Ravens last month.
Whatever the configuration, Cincinnati's rushing offense has actually turned in quality performances this season. They posted 165 yards rushing against the Buffalo Bills, 163 yards against the Miami Dolphins, and 162 yards against the New England Patriots. Yet for some reason, the attention on the running game has been inconsistent, at best. Sometimes it's the result of facing a quick deficit early in the game, forcing Cincinnati to dominate the skies. But sometimes we wonder if Bob Bratkowski's ghost is hovering somewhere at Paul Brown Stadium.
In five games this year, the Bengals attempted less than 30 runs winning only two -- and those losses in Chicago and Cleveland weren't dramatic deficits that required complete abandonment. Despite facing huge deficits early against the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati was able to sustain a comeback in both by refusing to abandon the run -- more accurately, they needed to get the ball in the hands of one of their best play-makers in Giovani Bernard.
Fantastic as the yardage might be, what really set San Diego apart from the other performances is how Cincinnati's runs impacted the game. Specifically, the tough yardage by a motivated BenJarvus Green-Ellis, converting short yardage situations on third down to sustain a possession that wiped out the game's final four minutes.
Indianapolis features one of the league's worst rushing defenses, allowing an average of over 128 yards rushing per game. And in the past five games, the Colts have allowed opposing rushing offenses to generate 137.4 yards rushing per game, five combined touchdowns, and a 4.3 yards/rush average.
Where Cincinnati actually displays greater inconsistency is the passing game. When Andy Dalton and his weapons are playing at their best, few defenses can stop the threat that Cincinnati imposes. Yet when they struggle to move the ball, sustain possessions, or by turning the ball over, it puts the defense into a position that requires them to save many of Cincinnati's eventual victories. We figure that the weather will impact the game, but Jay Gruden isn't limiting his options on the ground.
If we were to project, Cincinnati's rushing offense could generate the greatest key on Sunday, especially in a game with a forecast calling for dreadful conditions against a Colts defense that hasn't shown much ability to slow an opposing offense's running game.