Chick Ludwig
Chick Ludwig

For the past 30 years, Chick Ludwig has been one of the Miami Valley’s most popular sports columnists, the past twelve as the Bengals beat writer for the Dayton Daily News. He retired from the DDN in October of 2009, and currently writes a weekly Bengals blog for the Cincinnati Enquirer and is the Bengals correspondent for the The Sporting News. A former voting member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, Ludwig is a journalism graduate of Ohio State University.

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How do you account for the Bengals’ dismal home-opening loss to the Forty Niners?  Let me list them for you…that is, if you have the patience to read!

Where would you like to begin with the dissection of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 13-8 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday?

How about the disturbing distractions of Cedric Benson’s three-game suspension, which is under appeal, and the drug raid on wide receiver Jerome Simpson’s home? Maybe the red zone woes? Perhaps the third-down debacle? Even the terrible turnovers? Or how ‘bout the mere fact that only 43,363 spectators — sandwiched around 22,000 empty green seats — showed for this titanic struggle?

When it comes to the Bengals, you get the sinking and sickening feeling that the only way they win is by accident. Example: Their season-opening 27-17 win at Cleveland was achieved on a fluke 41-yard touchdown via a quick snap that caught the Browns nappin’.

They followed that victory with a heartbreaking 24-22 loss at Denver when head coach Marvin Lewis refused to allow kicker Mike Nugent to attempt a potential game-winning, 50-plus-yard field goal with just over three minutes remaining.

Cincinnati’s home opener should’ve been a celebration for a young team eager to make a statement against a mediocre-at-best 49ers squad. Instead, it turned out to be a sun-splashed snoozer that surely had Paul Brown and Bill Walsh spinning in their respective graves.

How do you lose to an NFL West opponent that doesn’t cross midfield until midway through the third quarter?

Let us count the ways: You possess the ball for only 24 minutes, 40 seconds. You convert one of 10 third-down situations into first downs. You get two first-and-goal opportunities at the Niners’ 6-yard line, and then settle for field goals. Your defense, which plays brilliantly all day, gives up one long TD drive. And then your quarterback throws two interceptions in the final four minutes. Yes, for the first time in three games, Andy Dalton — the “Red Rifle” — resembled a rookie.

“We have got to take a hard look at making sure we continue to do the things that we feel good about doing at the start of the game, and not stray too far away from that,” head coach Marvin Lewis said afterward. “We have got to figure out a way to do a more efficient job on first and second downs so we are not looking at some of these third and longer situations where the advantage goes back to the defense.”

Pardon the interruption, but didn’t Lewis just throw first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden under the bus? At least Gruden stood tall and took responsibility.

“We had plenty of opportunities and didn’t convert,” Gruden said. “We just have to hone in on what we’re good at. It’s a little bit of this and that and a lot of the play calling. We have to do a better job of getting guys into better situations.”

You can say that again.

The red zone is more like the twilight zone or the dead zone for the Bengals. Two trips inside the 49ers 20-yard line yielded two lousy field goals by Nugent. The Bengals ran into a brick wall known as Patrick Willis and the 49ers run defense. And when you can’t run the ball consistently, you’re asking for trouble.

There is absolutely no way you can sugar coat this affair. The Bengals’ home opener was BOR-ing. It set football back to the dark ages. It brought back memories of Bruce Coslet walking into a post-game news conference and announcing, “We suck.”

You absolutely have to find a way to win the game. But the Bengals didn’t. Now they’re licking their wounds this week in preparation for Sunday’s game against the visiting Buffalo Bills. Another game, another TV blackout in Cincinnati, Dayton and Lexington, Ky.

Remember this: The NFL season is like a kaleidoscope — tweak it and everything changes. The difference between 2-2 and 1-3 is monumental. Win, and you’re back in the hunt. Lose, and you’re buried in the AFC North Division basement.

The Bills (3-0), coming off a stunning 34-31 OT victory over New England, have the league’s top-scoring squad (37.7 points a game) colliding with the league’s No. 3 ranked defense (276.3 yards a game) authored by Bengals’ coordinator Mike Zimmer.

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is tied for second in the NFL with nine TD passes, and owns a 131.1 passer rating in the fourth quarter. He played for the Bengals in 2007-08 as second fiddle to Carson Palmer. Fitzpatrick, a Harvard grad, switched uniforms and became … well, Superman. Can the Bengals rip the cape off the Caped Crusader? Stay tuned.

(Chick Ludwig hosts the “Monday Morning Quarterback” show on Mondays from 6-9 a.m. through Jan. 2 on Fox Sports 1360 (WSAI-AM). Follow Ludwig on Twitter @ChickLudwig)

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