It had been ugly, wet and never assured, but the Cincinnati Bengals finally secured their spot in the NFL playoffs with a Monday night win on the Denver Broncos.
For a team that had controlled the AFC North for a lot of the season, a late charge by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens had some Cincy fans wondering if they’d even make the playoffs. But four Peyton Manning interceptions and one spectacular defensive game plan later, the Bengals have booked their ticket, but have in addition they put their prime-time woes to their rear?
The easy answer is “yes.” In the end, it doesn’t have more “prime time” than hosting the NFL’s glamour team and making arguably the league’s best player look foolish. The Cincy ground game ran rampant and the pass defense was tenacious. Cincy finally has its signature win, and not just a week too soon.
Before Monday, the Bengals of the Andy Dalton-Marvin Lewis era have been characterized as not being able to win when the lights were brightest and the games mattered most. That’s still markedly better compared to the Bengals of years prior, who never had a huge game to win in the initial place, but the 2014 edition clearly has loftier goals in mind.
With nevertheless, but it’s still hard to classify Cincinnati as a deep playoff contender. One great game does not just a great team make, and history does not smile on Cincy. The team has been unceremoniously bounced out of the playoffs in the initial round of all the last four years, care of some stinker performances by Dalton, and there still isn’t quite enough on the resume to suggest it can hang with the big boys of the AFC.
Rest assured, Manning won’t have another four-pick night should they meet again in Denver.
Dalton had a solid performance on paper. He completed 17-of-26 passes for 146 and two touchdowns. His one pick-six wasn’t really his fault either, with the ball being tipped off a receiver’s hand. The defense’s relentless pressure on Manning meant it was simply Dalton’s job to not lose the overall game, and he’s a reliable player in that department.
When he was called upon to produce some deep throws in long yardage, however, his decision-making was borderline disastrous. It’s hard to start to see the defense bailing him out many more times in January, particularly on the road.
But enough time for speculation is over; the time and energy to test the team’s mettle is now. If the Bengals thought they may take advantage of a playoff simulation before the big dance, then they got their wish. Heinz Field has served as a residence of horrors for the jungle cats, and it will undoubtedly be rocking to its very core with the division title on the line a few weeks against Pittsburgh.
There’s not much that’s predictable in the NFL, but you are able to bank with this: whoever emerges from the firefight as reigning champion of the best division in football will represent its conference in Glendale, Arizona. Whether that team could be the offensive juggernaut Steelers or the defensively dominant Bengals rests squarely on the Red Rifle.