The crowd was pumping and the music was thumping. Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" was booming, and for the first time in the longest time there was pride in Cincinnati. It had taken four months (16 season weeks), but the city of Cincinnati finally showed up with heart, pride, and most importantly—hope.
Enter Andy Dalton, enter A.J. Green, enter belief that the Bengals can do better, that Mike Brown can give back, that a team plays for Cincinnati and not in Cincinnati.
The imagination was rampant with Kurt Russell in Miracle being replaced by Marvin Lewis speaking to the team USA of Southern Ohio, firing the bellies of his players, giving the speech that the team may lose nine times out of 10, but not tonight, not this night.
Unfortunately, it did not play out this way, but something more inspiring came out of the crowd on Jan. 1, 2012, something quite unexpected: With the Bengals losing, the scoreboard flashed the meaning of any given Sunday as with Denver losing, the Bengals had entered the lair of lore not believed to be seen again for many years to come—the playoffs.
The Bengals have a ways to go, but something special happened in Week 17 of the 2011 season: Hope and belief emerged from the ashes of the past and have begun the Bengals back into the journey of the future.
Here is what we learned in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens....
At 5'8", one would think Ray Rice could not play, but with thighs of thunder, all it takes is one little opening. Two pivotal runs exposed the weakness of the Bengals secondary in that once Rice passed a well-blocked Rey Maualuga, nobody could catch up and the middle of the field was wide open.
A few mistakes away from elite, the Bengals were exposed as being almost there. Gresham's key fumble in Ravens' territory late helped stomp out the rally, and along with the defense's rough edges against Ray Rice, the future is bright as long as the Bengals learn from and eliminate these mistakes.
Bernard Scott has the size and speed needed to run to the edges, and with a further improved offensive line, the Bengals should capitalize on at least having Scott for depth in the future.
Andy Dalton did not give up and played it through until the end. The Bengals just did not have enough against the Ravens, but with a leader of the character that Dalton adds, the Bengals are finally in capable hands under center.
While the line was good and the linebackers were somewhat effective, without an upgraded corner and safety situation, the Bengals are going to need more work towards the future to truly close out games.
Another 5'8" player made key catches and was down-field for a beautiful catch deep in Ravens' territory late in the game. Girth is not Andrew Hawkins gift, but being fleet of foot is—not to mention being cool and calm under pressure.
Cedric Benson is waning away, which is a true shame. Either the step is missing or the discipline just is not quite there, and being one of the last vestiges of the prior era of trouble reborn Bengals does not bode well for Benson.
Early in the season, Benson's team play was more evident, but it does not seem his core skills are aiding him along. Though a downhill runner is what the Bengals need, Ray Rice showed what running downhill should look like—and Benson is not even close.
Not everyone can be Ray Rice, but to be the primary back for a West Coast offense, the Bengals need to upgrade Benson...
Jerome Simpson looks like something has turned back on for him. The late-season surge seems to have returned as it came on last season. Fighting for the ball, Simpson had some trouble but he fought, made second efforts and generally was in the game throughout.
The Bengals will be much better off next season with the return of Jordan Shipley, but going into the postseason, Simpson, Hawkins and Green should be able to bode well.
Conditions on Saturday likely will be favorable to the run and pass. The defense must build on the positives and create a defense that has three formidable levels of coverage (line, linebackers and secondary).
Failure to understand the schemes of the Ravens should give the Bengals the looks needed to evaluate the dynamic needs on defense.
Almost 21 years ago on Jan. 6, 1990, the Bengals met with the Houston Oilers in the wild-card round. Guided by Boomer Esiason, the Riverfront stadium crowd was electric as Boomer and team blew off the doors of the Oilers with a 41-14 drubbing.
Fast forward to Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, where Andy Dalton returns home having come from Katy High School (a Houston Suburb) to make the most improbable homecoming of his career.
Joining Dalton will be Midland, Texas native Cedric Benson for an equally important homecoming.
Inspiration may be on the side of the home team, but coming home from so far away is just as inspiring.
A.J. Green versus the Bengals biggest offseason loss, Johnathan Joseph, in part two of the new versus old will be equally watched with earnest, while Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson comes back to attempt to snuff out the Bengals postseason.
It is time to believe and be a part of the Bengals. No matter if the season ends on Saturday or moves forward, Bengals' nation has something to look forward to: the future.