Monday, December 16, 2013

Steelers, not Bengals, looked playoff-bound

By Paul Daugherty
December 16, 2013
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) scrambles from the pocket with pressure from the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) in the second quarter at Heinz Field. The Enquirer/Jeff Swinger
PITTSBURGH – Down 0-24 in the 2nd quarter, it wasn’t completely ridiculous to suggest that the Bengals empty their bench. Some teams do rally from 24 down, on the road, against a division rival. Not this team, on this frozen night. A bench purge would at least keep the important people healthy. And free from further torment.
The Bengals didn’t do that, yet still managed to escape big injuries, save for punter Kevin Huber. That was the best they could say about Sunday’s trip to familiar primetime misery. Perhaps Cincinnati’s first playoff game – there will be a first playoff game, right? – can be scheduled for 1 on a Sunday afternoon.
“We didn’t make anything happen,’’ said Marvin Lewis. “I didn’t come into the game thinking this could happen.’’
Every NFL team has games like this. Even the good ones. Since Week 4 in Cleveland, the Bengals had not rejoined that dubious party. That they chose Sunday night in prime time to play their worst game of the year doesn’t mean much beyond a tweaking of national perceptions. And who cares about that?

Pittsburgh, playing for nothing, looked like the playoff-bound team. The Bengals, playing for playoff seeding, played like they missed the bus.

It happens.

Even the evening’s favored subplot, James Harrison’s marauding return to Heinz Field, ended in the first quarter, when Harrison left with a concussion.

In no particular order of dreadful, the Bengals:
• Allowed a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown;
• Fumbled a punt snap, giving Pittsburgh a first down at the Bengals 1;
• Permitted Ben Roethlisberger enough time in the pocket to buy a pizza and a plane ticket to Bora Bora, and;
• Tackled like they were only somewhat interested.

“We got outplayed,’’ Adam Jones said. “We didn’t tackle good, we didn’t play good on special teams, we didn’t (protect) Andy. If it’s going to happen, let it happen when we still have time to fix it.’’

Huber’s injury is more costly than you might think. Steelers special-teamer Terence Garvin broke Huber’s jaw during Brown’s punt return touchdown. Potentially, that is a huge loss for a team that (mostly) plays very good defense and, thanks to Huber, has enjoyed a significant field position advantage.

Meantime, the defense wasn’t alone in looking lax. Cedric Peerman called for a fair catch on a kickoff, at least according to the officials. The Bengals had three false start penalties, in the first half. The offensive line, so good at keeping Andy Dalton comfortable lately, kept him running for his life in the first half.

Compare that to Roethlisberger, who had eight seconds to find Brown for a 12-yard TD pass in the first quarter. It was, as they say, a total team effort.

(While we’re at it: Can we lose the prehistoric notion that winning in the AFC North in December requires a good running game? Roethlisberger was 14-for-17 in the first half. He was 7-for-7 in the first quarter, against a 20 mph wind, in weather the Yukon would understand.)

Even when they scored, the Bengals looked like they left their urgency on I-79. They were down 30-7 in the fourth quarter when they produced their first good drive. Yet, they ran the drive as if the game clock were broken: Thirteen plays, all with a huddle, a drive time of seven minutes and nine seconds.

They were down 30-14, with 14 minutes to play. That’s three scores to take a lead, fellas.

The Bengals followed that up with a 10-play TD drive that took 4:26. That’s two scores that used nearly 12 minutes, which looks great on the stat sheet, but doesn’t give you much of a chance to make miracles.

Bright-siders could look at this game and see an Any Given Sunday wakeup call. Losses can have a way of leveling a successful team’s head. That assumes the Bengals needed a wakeup. They can point to two fourth quarter TDs as indication nobody bailed on the game.

If you walk with the cynics, you saw a team that didn’t look ready to play. A group that lacked the requisite want-to needed to win a game in Pittsburgh. Also, a team that blew a precious chance to move into the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff chase. That would mean a first-round bye, followed by a home game.

Ultimately, the NFL is a week-to-week proposition. What you do this week means nothing next week. That’s good news for the Bengals. “This one’s over,’’ Kyle Cook said. “Time to move on to next week.’’

Not soon enough, probably.

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