Monday, December 05, 2011

The way Bengals lost leaves questions

Loss in Pittsburgh was predicted by many, but 28-point quarter wasn't

by Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer
December 5, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04: Antonio Brown(notes) #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns a 60 yard punt for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half during the game on December 4, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH – The Bengals on Sunday were the team some expected to see all year. They spent three hours on a banana peel. A season of feelgood isn't slipping away, but the optimism of a month ago surely is. If you want to be good in the NFL, you'd better be good in December. How good are the Bengals, really?

"We got off kilter," Marvin Lewis said.

Well, yeah.

They played like children Sunday. No mistake was left unmade. They wrecked their impressive first drive with two penalties that took points off the board. Then they let that affect them the rest of the game. "We've got to learn to overcome those things," center Kyle Cook allowed after the 7-35 knockout delivered them by the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Everything isn't going to go your way.

"We didn't score, but we have to put that behind us and (say) look how we just marched down the field."

Young teams are fragile in the NFL. Their spirit energizes and offers hope. That works for awhile. It certainly has in Cincinnati, where youth propelled the Bengals to six wins in eight games and a five-game winning streak. That was then.

The season grinds on, and what looked so certain in October is suddenly cloudy in December. The best teams ride the down drafts and wait for their chance to be good when it matters. The Steelers are aging, especially on defense. Their offensive line isn't very good.

But they know how to play in December. They have the memory that winners own. They delivered that message-punch here Sunday, right to Cincinnati's jaw.

If you are Marvin Lewis, you can study the video and emphasize the mistakes that need to be corrected. That's all well and good. What you can't do is provide a field presence that Pittsburgh and Baltimore have in waves. Players who understand what it's like to be good in December, and the little extra it demands.

The Bengals gave away 28 points in the second quarter. A penalty voided a touchdown; another nullified a field goal. They lost a fumble on a kickoff, they allowed a 60-yard punt return TD. They couldn't block James Harrison, they finished with more penalty yards (109) than yards running (104).

Down 28-7, they played without purpose. Lewis pulled Andy Dalton with 12 minutes to go. In a game that could have highlighted their maturity as a team, they checked out mentally.

"I haven't had this feeling very often," safety Chris Crocker said.

What feeling, I asked Crocker.

"Embarrassed. When they're beating you so bad, their fans are leaving, that's a bad feeling."

Most teams in the NFL will have a week like this. Even good teams play inexplicably poorly. Baltimore beat the Steelers by the same, 35-7 score the first week of the year. Any Given Sunday wasn't just an ad campaign. The problem in Cincinnati is, the Bengals have won just once in the last month, a three-point victory over the 4-7 Browns.

Their best win all season was at Tennessee. The Titans are 7-5 and in the big, bloated middle of the league. In other words, as heartening as the Bengals year has been, the jury on them is decidedly out. The fact that they were strangely out of sorts Sunday certainly helped that case.

"We've got to put the fire out" was how Frostee Rucker put it. He wasn't talking about the rest of the year. He meant the first half Sunday. It didn't happen. On his 60-yard punt return, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown was untouched.

The Bengals are tied with Denver, Tennessee and the New York Jets, for the second wild card spot. They have two obviously winnable games left, at St. Louis and against Arizona. The other two are at home, next week with Houston and the finale on New Year's Day, with the Ravens. They'll need one of those, at least.

And so, beginning next Sunday, we will see about the 2011 Bengals. They weren't expected to win here Sunday. But the way they lost makes you wonder about them. I asked Crocker if the loss was bad, or worse.

"We'll see how we show up next week," he said. "Nothing else matters."

Time to start playing like it's December. Or consider playing out the string.

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