(Photo: The Enquirer/Gary Landers)
The fourth quarter arrived like an avalanche chasing a tsunami preceding a volcano and suddenly, everything you dared suppose about the Cincinnati Bengals, circa strange 2014, was wrong.
They led 21-17 after three quarters, then lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 42-21. The Steelers scored 25 points in just over eight minutes. Let's see LeBron do that.
Who are the Bengals?
They're improving dramatically against the run? Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell ran for about 10 days, nine of them in the fourth quarter. A bad Bengals quarter turned embarrassing with 5:09 left, when Bell strolled off left tackle for a 22-yard touchdown, without being touched. Bell had 110 yards, on seven carries, in 15 minutes. That's ridiculous.
They're solid preventing the big play? From his six-yard line, lording over a skinny seven-point lead with nine minutes left, Ben Roethlisberger insouciantly faked a line plunge to Bell, then threw deep right to Martavis Bryant. The rookie fourth-round draft pick had Leon Hall beat by an arm's length, with nary a safety in sight. Ninety-four yards later, the Steelers had a two-TD lead. The sky really was falling.
Clearly the best team in the AFC North? Hardly. The Bengals still lead the division by a half game over Pittsburgh and the Ravens. Even as they've lost their last two North games by three TDs apiece, both at Paul Brown Stadium.
Today, you fret and complain and blame Marvin and Andy. Next Sunday, at a little after 4, in Cleveland? Maybe a different tune.
How much of this Sunday was Cincinnati's admittedly maddening and ongoing inability to grab big moments by the face mask? And how much of it was simply The League being The League? Better to see the NFL now as 16 one-game seasons. What happens one week has no bearing on what happens the next.
Desperation is a great motivator. At 7-5, the Steelers weren't desperate, but they could see it from Paul Brown Stadium. Their quarterback owns the big-game success that Andy Dalton is still working to earn.
It's strange, ridiculous and a little unfair to suggest Dalton cost The Men the game. Dalton threw accurately, for lots of yards and without an interception. He actually hit Adriel Jeremiah Green – aka A.J. WhoCatchesEverything – in stride on the 81-yard bomb that ended the third quarter and gave the Bengals a 21-17 lead.
But then Dalton and Jeremy Hill screwed up a handoff that resulted in a fumble that led to a Steelers TD that gave the visitors the lead and some swagger they'd lacked all day.
"I was taking it, (Hill) thought I was giving it,'' Dalton explained. "You've got to work on the ball handling.'' No, you've got to make sure it's second nature, especially in a large game, in the fourth quarter, when your team is leading by a point.
This is the sort of mistake that has dogged Dalton forever. Green described the offense as "aggressive, until we had that turnover.'' Actually, the Bengals only made one significant play on offense the entire second half, and that was the 81-yard pass. But, point taken.
If the Bengals are to be as good as they think they can be, this has to change. It's one thing to go on the road three weeks and win all three against mediocre teams that won't be playing in January. It's another to beat a good team in a big game, anytime between now and then.
The Bengals had another chance Sunday. They get three more, in the next three weeks and, possibly a fourth in the playoffs. But it is games like Sunday that fuel the skepticism and the doubt. It's not a stretch to suggest the players are feeling it, too.
You look foolish saying bold things in the NFL now. What's entirely obvious today is completely absurd next week. Don't get too comfortable with who you think the Bengals are, or who they can be. Any team that can win three in a row on the road, then lose by three touchdowns for the second consecutive game at home, is capable of anything.
Marvin Lewis said his postgame message would have been similar, had his team won: "Good job, move on" instead of "Don't dwell on it, move on.'' Short memories are vital in the socialist NFL of Any Given Sunday, Monday and Thursday, but so is confidence. The Bengals of Marvin and Andy are still working on the confidence part.
Sunday's loss didn't inspire much.
There's always next Sunday, though.