No need remind them that the Bengals have lost seven straight playoff games going back to 1990. Now, the chance to change that is right there in front of them.
CINCINNATI — Now comes the chance to chase away the demons.
After 16 games, 12 wins and four losses—the latest, Sunday’s 24-16 win over Baltimore at Paul Brown Stadium—the Cincinnati Bengals reach the point they’ve worked for and wanted so badly.
Finally, they have the opportunity to change their identity. Now, they have the chance to dispel the ghost that’s loomed over this team all season long, the qualifier that clouded every thing they accomplished.
No matter what they do or how good they look, they remain the team that can’t win a playoff game. That’s what haunts them. Now they can change that – and more.
Moments after Sunday’s game, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was swarmed by reporters who laid out the possible playoff scenarios, the most likely – a meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers at PBS next week.
“Time,” he said, “for some exorcisms.”
That scenario was set when Denver, led by a resurgent Peyton Manning, defeated San Diego at Mile High, 27-20,
In a matter of minutes, the focus had shifted from what had just taken place on the field to what lay ahead.
So, it’s Pittsburgh. What else would you expect? Still another haunt.
“Alright,” said Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron, “we’re ready for the challenge.”
Tight End Tyler Eifert laughed. “Obviously,” he said, “it’s a huge rivalry, and they have kind of keyed-it-up in the past few years. Hey, it’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be a great atmosphere.”
Sunday’s game, the season finale, was almost an afterthought. It was just another brick on the path to the goal, and that’s pretty much the way the Bengals played it. They gave it just enough gas to get the job done.
“Anytime we play Baltimore, it’s gonna be close,” said quarterback McCarron, who threw touchdown passes to Eifert and A.J. Green. “It doesn’t matter who is hurt or in or out. It’s gonna be close.
“They showed us some different looks in the first half and we didn’t execute very well some times. But it’s like we say all the time, ‘Doesn’t matter how you win as long as you get the win.’ That’s kinda the way it was today…We picked it up a little and we’re 12-and-4 for the third time (in team history) and we’re headed to the playoffs. So, that’s good.”
In the early going, the Bengals offense appeared out of synch. They had no rhythm. On their first four possessions, they were forced to punt.
Meanwhile, Baltimore built a 6-0 lead on Justin Tucker field goals from 28 and 50 yards.
The Bengals leaned on running back Jeremy Hill, who responded to the call, and got on the board in the second when McCarron found Eifert for 22 yards and the score, taking the lead, 7-6.
That didn’t last long. Tucker banged a 49-yarder to put the Ravens back on top, 9-7.
The turn-around play in the game came when Vontaze Burfict picked off a Ryan Mallett pass on the Ravens’ 33. It was the first time in the game the Bengals started a drive beyond their own 20, and at that point, McCarron started to click with A.J. Green.
“A.J. – all those guys (receivers) – are so good it makes my job easy,” McCarron said. “A.J. made two great toe-tap catches on that drive (the second for five yards and the score) and we kinda went on from there.”
McCarron, like Lewis, was quick to point out Hill’s performance, somewhat of a mystery in weeks past. Hill carried the ball 16 times for 96 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1, giving the Bengals a 21-9 lead.
“The offensive line did a great job all day,” Hill said. “That (the TD run) was just getting a hat on a hat and giving me a nice gap. Then it was just outrunning the back side.”
“That’s the way we expect J. Hill to run the ball all the time,” McCarron said. “It’s fun for me to hand him the ball and then just sit back and watch him do his thing.”
Even though the 38-yard TD run skewed his per-carry average, Hill was still getting the job done. In his remaining 15 carries, he was cracking off nearly four yards per carry.
Mike Nugent capped the Bengals scoring with a 52-yard strike giving them a 15-point, 24-9 lead. Baltimore picked up seven, but it was late – too late, and all attention turned to the playoffs and a flaw in the performance against Baltimore that was most troublesome.
The Bengals failed to convert on a single third-down situation. They were 0-for-9, and even that was cast against the framework of the playoffs.
“You can’t do that in the playoffs,” Hill said. “You do, you’ll be packing your bags and headed home.”
All year long, they’ve worked to get back to the playoffs. This is the fifth straight time they’ve done so, the sixth in the last seven years.
All season, they lived with the onus of their past failures in the post-season. No need remind them that the Bengals have lost seven straight playoff games going back to 1990. Now, the chance to change that is right there in front of them.
When the possible scenarios were described to McCarron, he smiled a little.
“Alright,” he said, “we’re ready for the challenge.”
Lewis paused a bit when the Steelers came up during a locker room interview. “They are a good football team,” he said, “one of the very best in the league. To be one of the best, you have to beat the best…
“This is just our first step. The journey is just beginning. Our guys know that. So, we got to put our heads down and go to work.”
NOTES: Andy Dalton is scheduled to meet with hand specialists Monday to determine how his fractured right thumb is healing. He said he had no new information regarding his status. The thumb is still in a cast. McCarron said he would continue to prepare himself as if he were starting, which seems likely.