It's December and that means it's time for that annual migration of Cincinnati Bengals' "fans" jumping off the bandwagon. Their departure was hastened by yesterday's fourth quarter collapse against the Houston Texans that dropped the team to 7-6 and out of the last wild card spot. While it's understandable many fans have become jaded from over 20 years of this kind of thing, there are reasons to believe that this year's team isn't just another edition of the "Bungles."
Don't get me wrong, yesterday's loss was tough. It was a punch to the gut. Leading one of the AFC's best teams for 57 minutes only to give up a game-winning drive to a rookie quarterback starting his second NFL game is hard to swallow. That it involved giving up a 19 yard third down scramble and a pass interference penalty to keep the drive alive makes it worse.
Bengals fans contemplating jumping ship, however, might want to consider some context before giving up on the season or the team.
1. Why are we disappointed? If this team had simply fulfilled its expectations for this season, we'd all be congratulating them on a gritty effort against a playoff team, talking about their potential and worrying about last minute Christmas shopping. A funny thing happened though, instead of being miles out of playoff contention in December with only a couple of wins, the Bengals started 6-2 and inserted themselves into the playoff picture. That wasn't supposed to happen.
Cincinnati has since dropped four of their last five. But let's be realistic. Who really thought this team would win seven games this year? With our own rookie QB, a new offensive coordinator and new personnel all over the place, everyone chalked up 2011 as a loss. Lest we all dismiss what this team has accomplished thus far, ask Eagles fans how well they've fared incorporating new personnel into a new system. Or go down to Carolina or Jacksonville and examine the records of their rookie quarterbacks.
We're only disappointed this morning because the team has been successful thus far and…
2. It ain't over yet. The Bengals still have three games remaining: at St. Louis, at home against Arizona, and home against the Ravens. They must win all three and then hope for a Jets loss somewhere. The first two game are eminently winnable. The Bengals should be favored in both games. The Ravens game will be more challenging without a doubt, but let's not forget they were one Jermaine Gresham touchdown catch that was ruled incomplete from winning in Baltimore earlier in the year. The other factor will be what Baltimore has to play for. Even though they're tied with Pittsburgh, they essentially hold a one game lead due to their season sweep of the Steelers. If the division is wrapped up and the Ravens can't improve their seeding, they could be resting starters the final week of the season.
The Jets have to travel to a Philadelphia team that somehow is still in the playoff hunt thanks to the Giants win last night. Then they have to play the Giants and finish on the road against a Miami team that has been playing good football. New York has won three in a row, but they would have to win out if the Bengals win out to maintain their advantage as the Bengals would hold the tiebreaker. As Bengals fans well know, stranger things have happened in the last three weeks of the season.
3. It's not just Cincinnati. Yesterday's post-game commentary was filled with Bengals fans lamenting the "incompetence" of this team. I understand the frustration, but again, a look at the bigger picture is necessary. This is the NFL where holding a lead, to borrow from Bum Phillips means "not for long." The Bears were the latest victim of a Tim Tebow comeback yesterday. All they had to do was stay in bounds. Instead, they allowed Denver enough time to tie the game and send it to overtime. Carolina led Atlanta at home 23-7 at the half and lost going away. Dallas held a two score lead against the Giants that would have clinched the division, but allowed Eli Manning to come back and beat them and missed a game tying field goal. The Bengals weren't the only team yesterday to cough up a lead.
4. It's bad luck and injuries, not incompetence. If Geno Atkins holds onto the Arian Foster fumble, game over. But he didn't and the Texans ended up driving for a field goal instead of giving up that much or more. Cincinnati did surrender 300 yards to TJ Yates, but it bears remembering that Cincinnati is playing without Carlos Dunlap, its best pass rusher and Leon Hall, its best cover corner. Additionally, Bobbie Williams, the team's elder-statesman and an undisputed team leader, was lost to injury in the first half.
That underscores some areas where the Bengals still lack depth and where they still need to improve. They've gotten to this point in spite of their interior line play, not because of it. That's definitely an area that will have to be addressed in the off season.
That doesn't even take into account their narrow defeats at Baltimore and at home against Pittsburgh during this rough stretch. For all those crying that the Bengals can't play with the "big boys" they've sure played with the big boys, only the game at Pittsburgh being the exception.
Look, nobody here or anywhere thinks these young Bengals are Super Bowl material. Lets' not lose sight, however, of what they've accomplished to this point and what they've done to improve the product on the field. That alone is worthy of praise, not derision.
The next three weeks will be telling. Yesterday's loss removed destiny's control from the Bengals' hands. It will be another illustration of how far this team has grown and just what they're made of.
The Bengals played well enough to win yesterday against one of the AFC's best. Unfortunately, they played poorly enough to lose and did. I've got a strong feeling this isn't the same old "Bungles" franchise that will simply collapse down the stretch. I don't know whether events will play out in their favor to get them a playoff berth now, but I definitely see some entertaining football coming up over the next three weeks. If you're a football fan, you owe it to yourself to watch.
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