Paul Daugherty, email@example.com
December 29, 2014
(Photo: The Enquirer/Jeff Swinger)
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers laid a big hurt on the Bengals collective psyche Sunday night, and a bigger one on A.J. Green's head. The former pain should have been forgotten as soon as the Bengals boarded the bus to the airport. The latter is of larger concern.
Success in the NFL is so much shifting sand. The league conducts 17 weeks of one-game seasons. Assessing confidence or momentum week to week is a fool's game. As they say in the mutual-fund ads, past results are no guarantee of future performance.
By midnight last Monday night, the Bengals had scaled the big-game hill. Six midnights later, they were back at the trailhead. The questions that the Bengals answered so emphatically in beating Denver rejoined the party Sunday at Heinz Field.
What did any of it mean?
That Cincinnati will play at Indy next Sunday afternoon at 1, instead of hosting the Ravens at the same time. That's it. Going any deeper than that is asking to look foolish.
"You don't want to carry that emotional heartbreak,'' said George Iloka. "We'll get over it. We have to. Indy doesn't care we lost tonight.''
The Steelers won Sunday, 27-17, because they are more comfortable this time of year than the Bengals are, and more resourceful. Or maybe it was that the Bengals had three turnovers, to Pittsburgh's two. Or that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are in better tune than Green and Andy Dalton.
The Steelers survived two very bad plays in the second half – an ill-conceived fake punt and a holding penalty that wiped out a 59-yard run. The Bengals could not survive two ill-fated Dalton-to-Green throws in the first half. The first interception bushwacked a promising drive that had reached the Steelers 28-yard line. The second allowed Pittsburgh to begin a touchdown drive from the Cincinnati 28.
If you're worried about anything, skip the result here Sunday and focus on the ongoing inability of Dalton (ably assisted by Green) to make a big play in a big game, at a big moment. Marvin Lewis laid blame on Green for the first pick, near the Steelers end zone. He blamed the second interception on Dalton. "They each were a little at fault,'' the coach said.
At Indianapolis, the Bengals will see an offense as good as Pittsburgh's, and a quarterback, Andrew Luck, equally capable of making the scoreboard smoke. It's nice to pound Jeremy Hill – a weapon Cincinnati didn't use in its 0-27 embarrassment at Lucas Oil Stadium Oct. 19 – but at some point, your best players have to play their best when the stakes are high and non-negotiable.
Green later lost a fumble after being stripped of the ball, then took a shot to the head on the same play, that will have him on concussion protocol this week. If Green isn't cleared to play, it's hard to see how the Bengals can score enough to keep up with the Colts.
As for Sunday night, what's worth remembering is that Pittsburgh got two interceptions from a backup cornerback cut last March by the Texans. The strip and fumble recovery came from another vagabond corner, cut by the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars last season. You might not have known of Brice McCain and Antwon Blake before Sunday night. You do now.
Plus, Roethlisberger seems at home this time of year. Dalton remains a tourist. By halftime, Big Ben had thrown for 191 yards and no interceptions; Dalton had 81 yards and the two picks. Pittsburgh attacked downfield, to Antonio Brown (five catches) and Martavis Bryant (a 21-yard TD catch.) Cincinnati worked on perfecting its horizontal passing game.
The Bengals had the ball almost 10 more minutes than Pittsburgh, and produced 10 fewer points.
Give Cincinnati points for persistence. The Bengals almost overcame themselves. They trailed just 20-17 and were driving when Green fumbled. But ultimately, the team that made you breathe a little easier last week left you gasping Sunday.
At this delicate and defining point in the season, the only judgments that matter are the final ones. The Bengals have a chance to get it right, again, six days from now. "Doesn't matter what your record is or where you're seeded,'' Andrew Whitworth said. "We're all the same now. All that matters is if you win.''
Given the NFL's penchant for upending story lines, none of us should be offering any bold pronouncements. Except, maybe, this one: Another first-round Bengals farewell would be worse than the previous three. NFL economics and injuries dictate that it's hard to keep good teams together for extended runs. The Bengals have had their run. How much longer it lasts before rebuilding is mandatory, is anyone's guess.
The window isn't opening any wider. This Sunday night didn't help. Maybe next Sunday afternoon will.