The Cincinnati Bengals improbable hunt for a playoff spot in in this season in which they were expected to more likely contend for the number one NFL draft pick continues thanks to a business-like, but uninspiring win over the St. Louis Rams. The Bengals still need to win their final two home games against Arizona and Baltimore and get a little help in the form of a New York Jets loss to earn the sixth and final AFC berth.
That's still a tall, but not improbable task. The Jets have a big game this Saturday against the rival New York Giants with both teams clinging to playoff hopes and then have to travel to Miami to face a Dolphins team that's come on strong at the end of the season. If both the Jets and the Bengals win out, the Jets would win on the fourth tiebreaker, strength of victories.
Cincinnati meanwhile has two tough games ahead. Arizona has won six of their last seven to get to 7-7 and still holds onto slim playoff hopes. The Cardinals won't just be playing out the string on Christmas Eve. The Ravens, after getting thumped in San Diego, still may have to win the final week to secure the AFC North. There's now very little chance that they'll be resting any starters. In other words, the hard work has just begun for the Bengals.
And while no Bengals fan (and certainly not the team itself) would turn down an entry into the NFL's annual Super Bowl sweepstakes, Sunday's game illustrated that this team just isn't ready at this point to compete for the big prize. Make no mistake, being the sixth seed in the playoffs isn't a death sentence. Both Green Bay and Pittsburgh have won Super Bowls in the last five years as six seeds. These Bengals aren't the Packers or the Steelers though.
Cincinnati still has some growing to do and major holes to fill. The most obvious weakness on this team is its interior line play. It's an area the Bengals have struggled with all season long, but Bobbie Williams return after his suspension brought some stability. Without Williams though, the Bengals look to be floundering again inside. Mike McGlynn and Nate Livings just aren't the answer. Cedric Benson had more success running in the second half, but mainly on runs that were directed toward Andrew Whitworth or that Benson bounced out on his own. On the Bengals first two red zone trips, Livings allowed his man to break into the backfield dropping Benson for a four yard loss when the Bengals had first and goal from the one and McGlynn got called for a holding call, putting the Bengals in a passing situation, ultimately resulting in Andy Dalton throwing an interception. It's hard to see this line holding up against the Ravens in the final game or getting much traction in the playoffs.
The Bengals are still looking for offensive diversity as well. If AJ Green isn't on the field, this offense is in trouble. Green was a one man wrecking crew for the first 25 minutes of the first half. Yet he drew double coverage in the red zone, and when he left to have his shoulder examined at the end of the half, the Bengals had nowhere to turn. Jerome Simpson still hasn't proven he can be a legitimate threat opposite Green. Green should be able to go Saturday, but he'll no doubt see plenty of attention from Patrick Peterson, Arizona's phenomenal rookie cornerback.
On defense, the loss of Leon Hall still stings. Adam Jones, Nate Clements Kelly Jennings just haven't been able to make up for the loss of the team's best cover corner. Kellen Clemens was able to complete almost 70 per cent of his passes against the Bengals' secondary. They made no major gaffes in coverage, but they weren't able to shut down a pedestrian Rams passing game either. The front seven got good pressure on Clemens and sacked him three times, but the Rams were still able to move the ball through the air. With Larry Fitzgerald looming this week, that has to be a concern for the Bengals.
Cincinnati very well might make the playoffs yet. Even if they don't there's no doubt that what they've accomplished thus far has to be viewed as major progress for the organization. That progress has not brought them to the level of the upper echelon of the AFC, however. The losses to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston, though close, brought about that suspicion. The narrow wins over Cleveland and St. Louis have confirmed that.
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