In the Cincinnati Bengals' third playoff appearance in four seasons, even the most critical of voices were starting to give the Bengals some merit. Mike Ditka picked Cincinnati to win on the Saturday morning edition of Sportscenter.
And yet, after 60 minutes of football, the critics will all think of the Bengals the same way they always have—they can't break the door down. It seemed that Cincinnati had finally earned some respect, but their performance in their wild-card matchup with Houston was anything but respect-worthy.
In a game where 95 percent of the team could be called losers, let's take a look at the key winners and losers from the showdown in Houston.
Why not start with something positive? Josh Brown accounted for seven of Cincinnati's 13 points and has proven to be quite the addition to the team.
Brown was added a few weeks ago when Mike Nugent went down to injury and has been phenomenal since then. He kicked what could've been two very important field goals against Houston, keeping Cincinnati in the game until the very end.
It was a small victory, but Brown proved to be better than previous kickers for Cincinnati.
The entire offensive line was to blame in this one—at the very least, they played a big hand in the offense's struggles. I said the other day that J.J. Watt would be the difference-maker in the game. It proved to be true.
Kevin Zeitler was unable to contain "Swatt" and Connor Barwin consistently forced his way into the backfield as well. Andy Dalton wasn't good by any stretch of the imagination, but he's not fully to blame.
It's hard to make good throws when you don't have time to make good decisions. Watt and Barwin proved to be entirely too much for Andre Smith and Co.
Besides Josh Brown's leg, Leon Hall's pick-six in the second quarter was the only thing that kept Cincinnati in the ballgame. They were being heavily outplayed in the first half—in fact, this pick-six gave the Bengals the lead, all while having negative passing yards.
Hall's status was in doubt all season, as he continued to struggle with knee and nagging Achilles injuries. Behind four tackles and his interception return, Hall has made himself a household name once again in the Queen City.
Had it not been for the former Michigan standout, this game would have been a laugher from the start.
For the most part, the defense wasn't awful—holding a very good offense to four field goals and a single touchdown is a solid performance for a group who couldn't get off the field long enough for a break.
However, Rey Maualuga has regressed every single game this season. It was most detrimental in this game—Maualuga was tasked with measuring up against tight end Owen Daniels. Generally, this is a pretty doable task for a middle linebacker.
Daniels had other plans. Nine catches and 91 yards later, Cincinnati should realize that Maualuga is not a good linebacker. He has the abilities of a high school freshman in coverage and isn't a good tackler.
If any one man is to blame for Houston's offensive production, it's Maualuga.
Cincinnati's little offensive production didn't come until the second half, when star receiver A.J. Green finally made an appearance. All five of his catches and all 80 of his yards came after halftime.
Why does he get a victory here? Well, perhaps by default. Still, he was the only receiver of note who made some sort of impact. He tried to single-handedly breathe some life back into the Bengals' offense, but to no avail.
How much longer can he live under the Mike Brown regime?
Coming into the game, the biggest reason that people believed in Cincinnati was because of their fierce pass rush. It had become one of the best in the league, having the second-most sacks.
Today, Matt Schaub was not sacked. He was never hurried. He was never even knocked down.
Pro Bowler Geno Atkins was silent and the rest of the defensive line was seemingly absent from action when the team needed it the most. Anyone would agree that the Bengals' front four is far better than its back four.
You would never know it after seeing the Bengals' performance against Houston. Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins combined for two tackles.
Overall, Andy Dalton improved on his rookie numbers in 2012, looking better in a lot of areas.
One thing continued to haunt him and that was his inability to be consistent. Saturday's Wild Card game in Houston proved no different. Dalton often threw over his receivers and made some very questionable calls—why he went with a seven-yard slant route to Marvin Jones on 4th-and-11 is beyond me.
The Red Rifle completed under 50 percent of his passes and only collected 127 yards.
Not good for a quarterback trying to prove something.
Another year of disappointment. Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis' smiles at the end of the game sicken me.
What does this mean for the city of Cincinnati? Well, in a place that seems content with only playoff berths and mediocrity, a few things will cause some pain.
This will mean another year of Marvin Lewis.
Mike Zimmer may opt for a head coaching job elsewhere.
What needs will Mike Brown address? If any?
One thing is certain for this writer—optimism is not one of the words I can use to describe the Bengals.