Following the 1981 season, the Cincinnati Bengals – then in their 14th year of existence – lost the Super Bowl to a San Francisco 49ers team led by legendary coach Bill Walsh and his future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana. The following year the Bengals finished a strike-shortened 1982 season with a 7-2 record and a Wild Card berth, before having their hats handed to them in a 44-17 loss to the Jets. Now, for the first time in 30 years, Cincinnati is appearing in the postseason for a second consecutive season. In fact, the Bengals hadn’t even had two consecutive winning seasons during that span. Only five current members of the team had even been born the last time Bengals accomplished back-to-back winning seasons. That stretch included a 14-year postseason drought during which the Bengals became the “Bungles”, never won more than eight games in a season, and finished a collective 71-153.
In 2005 they ended the dry spell, finishing 11-5 and seeming poised for a breakthrough until quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a knee injury in a devastating playoff loss to the Steelers. The following season Cincy plummeted to 4-12. Then in 2009, the Bengals started 9-3 before stumbling down the stretch. They backed their way into the playoffs with a 10-6 record, and were promptly ousted by the Jets in the Wild Card round. In 2010, it was back to the “Bungles” – back to 4-12. The season was a three-ring circus with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens starring as clowns. Palmer was never on the same page with the diva duo and wound up tying a career-high by throwing 20 interceptions.
After the 2010 season, Palmer had seen enough of the cycle of futility, and simply quit on the team. The Bengals went searching for a new identity and drafted dynamic receiver A.J. Green, and red headed QB Andy Dalton with their first two picks. They allowed Palmer to stew at home, they cut ties with T.O. and C-Ocho, and moved on with their lives. Meanwhile most of the football world predicted more hard times.
But the 2011 Bengals beat the odds. While they struggled to an 0-7 regular season record against teams with an above .500 record, they won their other nine games and earned another Wild Card berth. Alas, the Houston Texans ended Cincinnati’s season the following week.
As 2012 approached, the Bengals hadn’t gained the confidence of the general public. While fans were hopeful, many pundits predicted a step back before the next step forward. After all, that 30 year dry spell was still in play. They started out 3-1, but after four straight losses it looked like the streak would extend.
Then the Cincinnati defense took over. Over the final eight games the Bengals were +9 in turnover margin. They limited opposing offenses to just 97.3 rushing yards per game, and 184.6 passing yards. They gave up more than 13 points just twice, finished with a 7-1 record in the second half, and guaranteed themselves a second consecutive trip to the playoffs with back to back wins over the Steelers and the Ravens to close out the season. The Bengals starting winning the games they were not supposed to win, and the team that was 0-8 against winning teams in 2011 (including their playoff loss) finished 3-2 in those games this year. Somewhere along the lines, this Bengals team grew up and got dangerous.
Saturday Cincinnati heads back to Houston, the site of their playoff loss last season. That day, the Bengals scored the first seven points but were blown out 31-3 the rest of the way. Then-rookie Dalton – a native of nearby Katy, Texas – became visibly frustrated, and wilted as the game wore on. He was intercepted three times, sacked four times, and was upstaged by fellow rookie T.J. Yates, who had been pressed into action due to injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.
But this year feels different. The Bengals are trending up, and even with a healthy Schaub, the Texans are reeling. After an 11-1 start, they were routed on a Monday night in New England, and staggered to a 1-3 finish. Houston’s stifling run defense, which had allowed 87.6 yards per contest through 12 games, gave up 127.3 per game over the final four weeks. A defense that had forced 26 turnovers during the 11-1 start, forced just three the rest of the way. Schaub had thrown 21 touchdowns heading into the New England game and managed just one after that. Houston’s once steady play became as irregular as the heartbeat that forced star running back Arian Foster out of a Week 16 loss to Minnesota.
One rough stretch does not make a season. Just as the Bengals overcame a rough first half of the season, the Texans are capable of rebounding from their slump. They feature a balanced offensive attack with Foster chewing up tough yards on the ground, and receiver Andre Johnson racking up the most receiving yards of his stellar career. On the other side of the ball, Defensive Player of the Year favorite, J.J. Watt amassed 20.5 sacks and batted 16 passes; and the pass rush and secondary limited opposing quarterbacks to just a 53% completion percentage. Still, the Texans have been torched this season not only by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, but also by the likes of Matthew Stafford and Chad Henne. Houston can be vulnerable to the big play.
Cincinnati and Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden should be taking note of these lapses. Giving up a big day to Calvin Johnson is no surprise. Struggling to contain Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Eric Decker is forgivable too. But Houston’s secondary has been tagged by 100 yard games from Ryan Broyles and T.Y. Hilton, and a 236 yard masterpiece by rookie Justin Blackmon. If the Bengals game plan is not heavy on Dalton-to-Green on Saturday, they haven’t been paying attention. At least one Bengal, offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, understands. “The big-shot plays. Even now more than ever, it’s the huge plays that win the playoffs.” Cincinnati will look to attack downfield early and get the Texans back on their heels.
Perhaps some onlookers are reviewing this matchup with last year’s results in mind. Cincinnati rolled into town, in over its head, with a team that got healthy feasting on weaklings, and promptly got slaughtered. Expecting that to happen again would be foolish. This version of the Bengals has become seasoned and tough, and has knocked off the bullies of its division two weeks running. Unlike the last time he played before his hometown crowd, Dalton seems ready. “I feel like I have more control over everything,” he said earlier this week. “There is a lot more stuff they are asking me to do at the line – (changing) plays and doing different things like that. That’s definitely an area where I have improved.”
With the way their team has been playing, Bengals players, coaches and fans have reason to believe their whole organization has turned a corner. This isn’t the “Bungles” anymore, but rather a squad with a confident, hungry defense led by tackle Geno Atkins, and a quarterback/receiver tandem that is maturing by the week. This team erased one string of futility, and this weekend they will be in position to end another. A win in Reliant on Saturday would mark the first time in 22 years that the people of Cincinnati have celebrated a playoff victory – the longest current streak in the NFL – and get one more monkey off their backs.