It’s been almost 27 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last-minute loss in Super Bowl XXIII and 24 years since their last playoff victory. Nearly three decades of agony. However, after making the playoffs in each of the last four years, and surging out of the gates at 8-0 this season, it seemed as though 2015 was finally going to be the year Cincinnati seriously competed for a championship again.
Now, who knows?
I say that not just because the Bengals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 33-20 on Sunday, but also because they are the Bengals. And to the NFL Gods, that seems to be a sin too unforgivable. This week, Cincinnati’s sacrifice to the football deities was quarterback Andy Dalton, and that could once again spell the end of their hopes of a deep playoff run.
Dalton, who came into Week 14 as the league’s highest rated passer, broke his thumb early on against the Steelers – and some reports indicate he will miss the rest of the regular season. To add insult to injury, Dalton was injured after throwing perhaps the worst pass of the year.
As if it could have gone any other way for a franchise that was finally beginning to taste real success.
Sunday marked a real opportunity for the Bengals to prove they had turned the corner. Facing Pittsburgh at home, the team that has so often finished ahead of them in the standings and spoiled any good moments they’ve had in the last three decades, Cincinnati could have clinched the AFC North and kept pace to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Instead, they reopened the door for the Steelers in the North, lost ground to the New England Patriots and now face an immediate future without arguably their most important player. Can the Bengals recover from this? It’s not going to be easy, and a lot is going to depend on whether or not A.J. McCarron just happens to be a diamond in the rough that’s been waiting for his time to shine.
So far that seems unlikely.
McCarron was better than expected, finishing with 280 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw a pick-six to start the second half and another interception in the fourth quarter that led to a Steelers score that essentially put the game away. Cincinnati’s offense doesn’t rely on racking up a ton of passing yards, but rather on protecting and controlling the football. Few teams in the NFL will win when giving up 17 points off of turnovers.
It won’t matter who the opponent is if McCarron does that again.
Next week, Cincinnati travels to San Francisco to face the 49ers, a team that managed to lose to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. However, the follow-up is a road date with the Denver Broncos, where their hopes of a playoff bye week could hang in the balance. And if the Bengals don’t get it, they could be facing their fifth straight first-round exit.
Even if Cincinnati does win the division, their first round opponent could either be the red hot Kansas City Chiefs or the team that just beat them, the Steelers. It might also be the New York Jets, who are streaking and coming off a 30-8 win over the Tennessee Titans.
If Dalton heals – as well as tight end Tyler Eifert, who left Sunday’s game with a concussion – then the Bengals should be considered as dangerous as they were at 8-0. But with home-field slipping away and fate rearing its ugly head in Cincinnati once again, the odds of finally get their shot at Super Bowl redemption seem slimmer than ever.
For the Steelers, they continue to fight their way back from a 4-4 start. Pittsburgh remains in a three-way tie for two wild card spots with the Chiefs and Jets. As of now, their conference record has them on the outside looking in, with a game against the Broncos next week. A win against Denver would have the Steelers looking great headed into January – and let’s not forget that they’ve been without Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell for large stretches of the season.
Bouncing back from injuries is something that we’ve come to expect from a franchise like Pittsburgh. It’s not something we’re used to seeing from Cincinnati. Maybe that’s why it’s already starting to feel like we’ll be tacking on another year to the Bengals’ playoff drought.