Things aren't quite going as planned for the Cincinnati Bengals right now. The first quarter of the season saw the Bengals with a 3-1 record with the hope very much alive for a second consecutive playoff year. But now they are 3-5, having lost their last four games. They've slipped to third place in the AFC North and, barring a dramatic turnaround in this last half of the season, making the playoffs seems to be the longest of long shots.
There's no reason why the Bengals need to concern themselves with what may happen in January, however. They need to figure out how to turn things around, starting with this Sunday's game against the New York Giants. Let's take a look at where the Bengals stand presently and what they need to do to prepare for Week 10.
The Good: Holding Their Own Against Denver
Though the Bengals were defeated by the visiting Denver Broncos on Sunday, 31-23, they didn't roll over against the Peyton Manning-led team. Instead, they spent much of the game trading blows with Denver and, barring Trindon Holliday's 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that opened the second half of the game, Cincinnati could have most certainly pulled out the victory.
The Bengals alternated between Andy Dalton trying to match Manning's passing prowess when on offense and trying to keep Manning at bay on defense. The latter they did the only way that seems to work against him—by cutting him off from his receivers and his receivers from the field. It wasn't really until the fourth quarter, when the Broncos were down 20-17, that Manning really started consistently firing on all cylinders.
Cincinnati even ran the ball well—and better than the Broncos. The Bengals had 25 runs totaling 91 yards and a touchdown compared to 68 yards and no scores on 26 Denver runs. Manning was picked off twice by cornerback Terrence Newman, while Dalton had his one, now-customary interception. Pressure differed, with Dalton taking five sacks to Manning's zero, but Dalton also handled Denver's blitzes better than he had against other teams this season.
This week, it wasn't that the Bengals failed, instead, they just didn't do enough. Sure, that's not a pleasant thought, but with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton tripping up and falling on his face in the three previous weeks, taking his team with him, it is a sign that things can indeed be turned around.
The Bad: The Four-Game Losing Streak
Regardless of how well the Bengals fought off the Broncos for three of four quarters of last Sunday's game, they still came away with a loss, their fourth in a row. What they desperately need right now is a win, and it's not going to come easily with the New York Giants coming to town this Sunday.
Last week's loss was attributable to failures of execution at critical times, such as keeping Manning from scoring in the fourth quarter, preventing the Holliday touchdown return and Dalton finally not throwing an interception (this one resulted in one of the two touchdowns Manning threw in the fourth quarter).
The better teams in the NFL know how to make their opponents pay for their mistakes and few are as adept at this than the Giants. Cleaning up the little messes that have comprised the four big losses can certainly result in the Bengals finally getting back into the win column.
Inconsistent play, year by year, has been a hallmark of the Bengals over the four previous seasons, with above-.500 records augmented by ones well below. It's as though any progress made cannot stick from one season to the next, whether because of personnel changes, injuries or general inconsistencies in the quality of their play.
No matter what improvements the Bengals show in any given game, it doesn't matter unless they win. These four straight losses are a huge hit to their goals for the season as well as to their confidence as a team. It's great that Dalton had fewer interceptions than Manning, that the Bengals put up more rushing yards than the Broncos and that the defense didn't let Manning have an easy time of passing the ball. However, they didn't win. Better execution in all four quarters is necessary, especially this week against New York.
What's Next: The New York Giants
The Bengals have to prepare for Eli Manning's New York Giants similarly to how they approached his brother's team last week. Again, it's about cutting off deep passing outlets, trying to bring pressure when possible, and putting up as many mistake-free yards and points as possible.
They nearly accomplished this against Denver, and it's clear that there are reasons to believe the Bengals are close to righting their ship. But the Giants are likely in a foul mood after being defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers at home and haven't dropped two straight games yet this season.
Furthermore, the Giants are defending Super Bowl champions and have a convincing win over the San Francisco 49ers among their accomplishments this season. Meanwhile, the Bengals have yet to beat a team with a winning record.
On paper, the Bengals seem completely outmatched; however this can be used to their advantage. The power of being underestimated can be harnessed—it's the stuff so-called "trap games" are made of—and the Bengals have a lot they are fighting for, such as avoiding a fifth straight loss.
If Cincinnati can eliminate the errors from Week 9 and prepare for the Giants as they did the Broncos, they have more than just the random nature of luck on their side against such a difficult, but mortal, opponent.