Something that didn’t look possible after the Cincinnati Bengals fell to a 3-5 start was a vision of the postseason.
However, after a stout defense won a war of attrition against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals find themselves locked into the No. 6 seed for the AFC playoff picture.
The win at Heinz Field means that the Bengals defeated one of the AFC North elites, the first time they have done so in Andy Dalton’s short tenure as Cincinnati’s quarterback. It also marked their sixth win in seven games.
Locked into their respective postseason seed, the Bengals could potentially face any of the AFC division winners in the wild card round. That is, their opponent could be either Houston, Denver, New England, or Baltimore. It depends on who exits Week 17 as the No. 3 seed.
That team will likely be the New England Patriots, who defeated the Bengals 38-24 in the most recent meeting between the two teams. That was the 2010 season opener.
Tom Brady and the New England offense have shown little reason to doubt the home team in this projected matchup. An established running game has helped the Patriots develop a more balanced playbook, and even the best defenses have had trouble stopping the Patriots’ rhythm when they have the ball.
Just ask the San Francisco 49ers about their near-epic collapse in Week 15.
Who wins the projected wild card match-up?
So how can the Bengals win against such odds?
At first glance, chances seem pretty slim. Then again, the second and third glimpses don’t reveal anything too promising either.
Brady has a keen eye to picking up blitzes, has receiver threats even when you don’t think they’re there, and has the ability to throw with pinpoint accuracy from the pocket. None of this bodes well for Cincinnati, even with the most improved defense in the NFL.
Andy Dalton has been very solid this year, and he has threats in standout WR A.J. Green, Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will also get to show his former team how much he has the helped the Cincinnati offense down the stretch.
However, it would be more than a little far-fetched to say the Bengals have the offensive experience to match that of the Patriots.
Which means that in order for the Bengals to win, some help from the intangibles of football are needed. Things that aren’t strictly laid out on paper, and parts of the game that can’t be predicted.
The first of those is getting pressure on Brady. I know, even the 49ers will name that a high task. However, with Geno Atkins leading a formidable Bengals front-four, we’ve seen stranger things happen. The Bengals lead the NFL in sacks this year with 47, and they will want to create the same pressure against New England in the playoffs.
It isn’t just sacks that make teams fear the Bengals pass rush. Knock-downs, hits, and forcing opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket are all abilities possessed by the dangerous Cincinnati defense up front.
The fact that their secondary has improved by leaps and bound only puts the trouble offenses have against the Bengals in cement.
Another thing the Bengals must do against the Patriots is create turnovers, something they have started to do quite well in their wins during the second half of the season. The problem is that this is something the Patriots have excelled at this year as well.
Both teams are actually very limited in the turnover margin as of late, excluding both Dalton and Brady’s interceptions in Week 16. The Patriots have forced them in bunches all season, while the Bengals’ best example is creating five turnovers against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The return game will also be essential.
For the Bengals, ex-Patriot Brandon Tate will likely be called on to return most kick-offs. Tate will need to show his former team a reason to fear kicking to him early on, as the momentum of the game could depend on the field position he gives the Cincinnati offense.
Adam “Pacman” Jones just needs to continue excelling in his punt returns.
Even with pressure, turnovers, and special teams, the Bengals will be hard-pressed to keep the game a close battle through four quarters. This is not a statement that downplays the abilities of a young, rising Cincinnati team. Rather, it is as statement that speaks volumes about the experience of New England.
For a prediction I have to go with the Patriots here. Their offense is just too good, and the defense makes the big plays that matter.
As for the Bengals, a loss doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve the history they made by making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in three decades. It just means that this isn’t their year.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Bengals 21