Cincinnati should not be a surprise anymore.
It took me years to finally do it but with hard work, preparation, and practice, I finally accomplished my goal. Continue repeating your efforts over and over again, develop muscle memory, and we can all strive for that greatness. After all of the time spent pushing towards my goal, I was finally there.
At last, I can spell "Cincinnati" without having to look it up. Cin-Cin-Nati. Woo!
The Bengals can attest to spending years of hard labor to finally reach a level where they too can accomplish their goals. The road just has not been very kind and it took even longer for them to become a perennial contender than it took for me to spell their city's name. From 1991 to 2004, they had zero playoff appearances and zero winning seasons. From Dave Shula to Bruce Coslet to Dick LeBeau, three head coaches that have a combined 17 years of head coaching experience and zero winning seasons, the Bengals were left without an identity other than the cleverly thought out term, "Bungles."
"Ah ha! See, they are bungling up their football plays!"
The lineage of quarterbacks did nothing to satiate the lack of a strong head coach either: Dave Klingler, Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Akili Smith, and Jon Kitna doing anything for ya? No? Well, don't worry we have a bunch of top draft picks! Like taking Dan Wilkinson over Marshall Faulk and Ki-Jana Carter over Tony Boselli and Steve McNair with back-to-back number one picks. Or taking Peter Warrick fourth overall. Or that your best picks, like Takeo Spikes and Justin Smith, enjoyed their greatest seasons after they left Cincinnati.
Everybody in college football wants to be taken in the NFL draft but it seemed like being taken by the Bengals was, well, did you do a good job for prepping yourself for another career should football not work out?
However, things looked up after hiring Marvin Lewis and drafting Carson Palmer in 2003. Back in those days, quarterbacks were not expected to be Pro Bowl, playoff-leading wizards like they are today, but in Palmer's third year the Bengals went 11-5, ending a string of sixteen years without a winning record. Brighter days ahead, I say! Except that Palmer got hurt and then stopped playing as good as the promise he showed early in his career, and the only constant was that Lewis would be given opportunities unlike what most head coaches get to enjoy after 10 years without a playoff win.
That stretch seems poised to end at any moment.
This team just seems too good to go one-and-done for the fourth time in his head coaching career, and it didn't even take a top overall pick at quarterback to do so. In fact, it didn't even take a first round pick. The Bengals dared Palmer to holdout as if they really cared, and so he did, and they went with Andy Dalton. Cincinnati drafted A.J. Green instead of making a reach like Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, or Christian Ponder. Wait, these are the Bengals right? Instead they opted for Dalton in the second round and thought to themselves, "You know? We don't have to do the Bengals thing to do. We could do the opposite!"
Over a few years, changes were made. Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Terrell Owens were all let go. Green and Jermaine Gresham were in. Cincinnati focused on defense and grabbed Geno Atkins in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, possibly the best value pick of the year as Atkins has developed into the premier interior pass rusher in the NFL. The Bengals have an efficient and balanced offense with Dalton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, with Green turning into one of the top five receivers in the NFL. They will not "wow" you on any aspect of offense other than Green, but they don't need to.
The Bengals finished eighth in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, and an olio of castoffs from other teams (Terence Newman, Nate Clements, Pacman Jones, and even a Taylor Mays sighting!) seems about right for a team that was led in tackles by Vontaze Burfict. It's not the most talented defense, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has put everyone in the right place while the Bengals have turned around from a 3-5 start to a 10-6 finish.
It's hard to understand why the Bengals are even here, what with a lack of "name" talent and a quarterback that quietly threw 27 touchdowns while you were too busy focused on the enchanting eyes of the Jets backup, but isn't that the best thing that the Bengals can do? Go unnoticed? They went noticed for over 20 years, and it was rarely for anything good.
Maybe they are no longer the "Bungles." Maybe we should start calling them, the "Wrangles." You know, because they wrangle up wins and such. Yeah, that's what I'm going with.
Why the Cincinnati Bengals will win the Super Bowl:
Cincinnati has won seven of their last eight games, getting over the AFC North hump by beating the Steelers and Ravens to finish the year. Their lone defeat in the second half was a one-point loss to the Cowboys. During that span they have forced 19 turnovers compared to ten giveaways.
Over their last eight games, they have only allowed 20 points once (that loss to Dallas) and have held six opponents under 300 total yards. If they can do that against Houston and protect the football, Lewis will have his first playoff win.
Advanced football site Football Outsiders ranks the Bengals as having the seventh-highest Weighted DVOA in the NFL. Basically:
WEIGHTED DVOA represents an attempt to figure out how a team is playing right now, as opposed to over the season as a whole, by making recent games more important than earlier games.
The Bengals were the seventh-hottest team going into the playoffs, while Houston was ranked 19th in that category.
The Texans Lack of Hotness
Houston was 11-1. They are not nearly 11-1 anymore after losing three of their last four games. Not just losing, but losing pretty handily to the Patriots (42-14), Vikings (23-6), and Colts (28-16). I must have missed the part where T.J. Yates was starting again.
Matt Schaub has one touchdown in his last four starts and just 4 TD and 4 INT in his last six. And it's not like the Texans were facing the toughest defenses in the NFL; The only way I could picture the Patriots giving up zero touchdown passes in a game is if the game was written by David Lynch and he was just being weird for the sake of being weird again.
Roads? Where we're going we don't need no stinkin' roads
The Bengals will need to win three road games to make the Super Bowl, and they are not worried about it. Cincinnati was 6-2 on the road this season, including winning each of their last four away from home. Though he threw more interceptions outside of Cincinnati, Andy Dalton had a higher yards per attempt (7.32 compared to 6.54 at home) and rushed for four touchdowns on the road compared to zero at home.
Green had 854 receiving yards on the road (496 at home) and the Bengals defense forced 14 turnovers in eight road games.
Cincinnati will be traveling, but that also might be a good thing.
Why the Cincinnati Bengals will not win the Super Bowl:
It's not like the Texans are bad
We've seen good teams stumble into the playoffs before and make Super Bowl runs. It's hard to make any definitive statements about a team over four games, and still the Texans beat the Colts 29-17 in Week 15. It won't change the fact that Houston is talented all over the field, it's only a matter of them getting back to playing that way.
It doesn't erase the Texans win over the Broncos in Denver. We can't forget that Houston beat the Ravens by 30. And that they beat the Bears in Chicago when the Bears were still good. The Texans have been playing close to the vest all year and flirting with a worse record than what they currently have (OT wins over the Jaguars and Lions) but Houston still finished with a 12-4 record.
The Texans finished the year as a top ten offense and a top ten defense. There are holes, more holes than we expected after an 11-1 start to the season, but Houston might not be a blessing in disguise or a blessing at all. They might be a great team that now the Bengals have to face in the first round rather than being the top overall seed.
Oh, and if the Bengals get past the Texans, they only have to win at Denver and then probably at New England and if they get that far, the NFC is the much-stronger conference this season. Cincinnati might be putting together their best team in a very long time, but are they good enough relative to the rest of the NFL?
The Texans finished behind the Bengals in Weighted DVOA but in front of them in total DVOA (by a hair) and gets to play in Houston, where they are 6-2.
Houston may be strugglin', but they are far from a gimme.
Are the Bengals totally hot or was their schedule totally not?
Cincinnati finished 10-6 but how did they do against playoff teams? 2-2. That's not that bad, right?
Well, they lost to the Ravens 44-13 in Week 1. They beat the Redskins in Week 3 as Washington started 3-6 before needing seven straight wins to make the postseason. They had a valiant effort against the Broncos before Peyton Manning pulled Denver away in the fourth quarter to win 31-23. They beat the Ravens 23-17 in Week 17... Tyrod Taylor attempted 25 passes in that game.
A 10-6 record is one thing, but a lack of playing tough opponents and especially beating tough opponents, makes it hard to know how real that 10-6 record is. You got to play the Jaguars and the Chiefs and the Raiders! AFC West! The Texans are the best team that the Bengals have faced since the Broncos, and they lost that game. It would be hard to see a team lose to the Browns and win a Super Bowl in the same year.
Where's the Andy Dalton magic?
Dalton has gotten off to a much better start after two years than most people had ever expected. However, he has not been the player to lead the Bengals on this run of recent success. Over his last five games, Dalton has 4 TD and 5 INT, though he has also run for two touchdowns. What he has not done, is thrown for better than 7 yards per attempt since Week 11. Or for over 8 yards per attempt since Week 6. And A.J. Green should be worth a lot of yards per attempt all by himself.
Did you know: Bruce Gradkowski has as many "Fourth quarter comebacks" this year as Andy Dalton? Yeah, Gradkowski didn't throw a pass until Week 17.
Andy Dalton is a pretty good second-year quarterback. Carson Palmer went to the playoffs with the Bengals twice in seven years. Dalton has done that twice in two. The Bengals haven't had back-to-back playoff appearances since 1981-1982 and there was only a nine-game season in 1982. That is the only other time that Cincinnati has gone to back-to-back playoffs, Dalton could witness the Bengals first three-straight trips to the postseason next year.
However, if the Bengals find themselves down six with two minutes left in Houston at their own 20-yard line is Dalton ready to drive them down the field and lead them to their first playoff win since January 6th, 1991? Can the Bengals, winners of five playoff games in franchise history, win four playoff games this year?
It's doubtful. But if they do, nobody will forget how to spell Cincinnati anymore.