CINCINNATI — There are plenty of snakebitten franchises in the NFL. The Eagles, Bills, Browns and Cardinals all have long histories of either mitigated success or blatant futility.
And then there’s the Cincinnati Bengals.
This franchise just can’t seem to catch a break. For the first half of the season, Southwest Ohio was home to one of the best teams in football. The defense was stout (currently the league’s 2nd best scoring defense), the ground game was solid, and Andy Dalton finally put it all together and was a legitimate MVP candidate for an 8-0 team.
Since then, the Bengals have dropped three of their five games and now face life without the league’s third-rated passer (106.2). As I mentioned in this week’s NFL recap, Dalton had a massive brain fart in a first half drive Sunday that began with a mindbogglingly idiotic shovel pass and ended with a fractured thumb on a misguided attempt at a tackle. At best, he’ll miss the next two weeks but the likelihood is that we’ve seen the last of the Red Rifle this season.
This is a potentially fatal blow to a team with legit title hopes. New England remains the favorite in the AFC (especially now that Tom Brady again has Rob Gronkowski to throw to), but Denver doesn’t have the stability at quarterback to really challenge Cincinnati in a game that matters (which we’ll see when these two teams meet in the final Monday Nighter of the season). Bengals backup QB AJ McCarron isn’t likely to pull a Kurt Warner considering he’s only thrown 36 passes in his career — 32 of which came Sunday.
I’m no card carrying member of Who Dey Nation (in fact, this team consistently frustrates me every year), but I was rooting for the Bengals to make a deep playoff run. Considering the rebuilding effort he was originally tasked with, coach Marvin Lewis has done an overall good job: Their postseason berths (6) double the number of losing seasons (3) in his 13 seasons in Cincinnati. However, improving his Schottenheimer-esque 0-6 career postseason record was a must entering this season — and now, perhaps his best shot at finally getting over the hump has taken a huge hit.
Even with the loss to Pittsburgh, Cincy is 10-3 and two games in front of the Steelers in the AFC North with only three left to play. Unfortunately, it looks like the Bengals will win the division and grab either the 2 or 3 seed in the conference.
You read that right. Unfortunately.
Given the circumstances, Cincinnati might be best served by entering the playoffs as an 11-5 wild card. That would likely earn them the 5-seed, which would send them on the road to face whichever lousy team accidentally wins the AFC South. Playing at Indianapolis, Houston or Jacksonville is not only a more winnable game than hosting a hot wild card team like Pittsburgh or Kansas City, but it would be their best hope at simply winning a playoff game to silence their critics and get some much-needed momentum for a divisional round matchup in either New England or Denver.
Of course, nailing down the 2-seed in the AFC would also prove beneficial. That would give Cincy a home playoff game (which I don’t think matters since they haven’t won one since 1990 and two of this season’s three losses were at home), a first-round bye and an extra week for Dalton’s thumb to heal. But if the Bengals are good enough to clinch the 2-seed with McCarron under center, it stands to reason that Dalton shaking off a month of rust for an idle team may not necessarily be a better option at the time.
This much we’ve seen from coaches that have struggled to find postseason success: You’re better off as the hunter than the hunted. Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Tom Coughlin all won Super Bowls as wild cards and often disappointed as favorites. Perhaps backing into the postseason as an afterthought is exactly what Lewis needs to get the monkey off his back.
Unfortunately for long-suffering Bengals fans, they’ll probably win their division but slide to the 3-seed in the conference — which would likely mean a rematch with the rival Steelers (maybe the league should immediately start lining up some added security for that blood feud) or a tough matchup with either the Jets or the Chiefs. At full strength those are tough games; playing either a rusty Dalton or a “meh” McCarron is a disadvantage that could prove insurmountable.
So December in Cincinnati will likely end with the rather familiar consolation: “At least we’re not Cleveland.” Or some other, more colorful version of it.
Now here’s a nice, colorful version of the Week 14 NFL Recap.