As the Bengals go, so does the entire AFC playoff picture. The pressure is high.
The Cincinnati Bengals lost ground in Week 12, though they didn't lose a game. On their bye week, the Bengals could only sit back and watch as two of their AFC North rivals came away with much-needed wins.
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens improved their respective records to 5-6, just two games behind the 7-4, division-leading Bengals. Though the Bengals are certainly still in control of their postseason destiny, they cannot falter at a time other division-mates are on the rise.
The AFC playoff picture as a whole is a murky one, almost as murky as what lurks just two games behind the Bengals. Right now, five of six AFC postseason berths are spoken for and the battle for the sixth may not be won until the waning minutes of the 2013 season.
The Bengals aren't safe at 7-4. Three of the six 5-6 teams vying for the sixth spot are among the Bengals' remaining five opponents. Two of those are in the AFC North. The Bengals' firm grasp on the division and a playoff berth is actually much more tenuous than that.
Steelers, Ravens won in Week 12; Browns lost.
While it's true that only one of Cincinnati's remaining opponents has a winning record at present—the 7-4 Indianapolis Colts, whom the Bengals take on in Week 14—that doesn't make any of their upcoming games easy wins. The Ravens, Steelers and San Diego Chargers are on their own playoff hunts and can spoil the Bengals' season easily.
The keys for the Bengals to maintain their AFC North lead and not have to duke it out with the many 5-6 teams in the wild-card hunt are deceptively simple. They must continue to play defense at a high level, not falter on special teams and get their offense playing consistently good football. The latter will likely prove the biggest challenge.
Though the Bengals went into their bye week after a 41-20 defeat of the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton had another rough outing. He completed only 13 of his 27 pass attempts—a completion percentage of 48.1—for a mere 93 yards. While he threw three touchdowns and the Bengals went into halftime with a 31-13 lead, the low completion percentage and sub-100-yard passing performance are still causes for concern.
It is especially concerning because it wasn't an outlier—it was the culmination of a problem that had dogged Dalton since his team's Week 9 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Coming off a great, three-game stretch in which Dalton threw at least three touchdowns and for over 300 yards per game, he threw a combined five touchdowns to eight interceptions in the following three weeks.
His completion percentage was on the decline, from 60.4 in Week 9 to 47.1 percent in Week 10 and 48.1 in Week 11, as were his yards per attempt, from 6.4 to 5.4 and then finally 3.4. He was sacked five times in Week 9 and five times again in Week 10.
Suddenly, Dalton went from having the best season of his three-year career to playing like one of the NFL's least reliable quarterbacks. Unsurprisingly, the Bengals lost two of those three games.
|8||vs. Jets, W||30||19||63.3%||325||10.8||5||1|
|11||vs. Browns, W||27||13||48.1%||93||3.4||3||2|
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
It's easy to overstate the value of a quarterback's play to his team's overall success. The nature of the position means that both undue credit and undue blame are given to the quarterback based on the outcome of a game. With Dalton, however, this is not the case.
The defense and special teams have not been problems, regardless of the season-ending injuries suffered by top cornerback Leon Hall and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Cincinnati's defense, in particular, has played well during Dalton's three-game slide. It has generated turnovers and overall ranks sixth in the league both in yards and points allowed per game.
Dalton needs to come out of the bye week refreshed and with the past firmly behind him. He cannot think of the three good games that preceded the three bad ones, nor the struggles he's had before his week off.
The season begins all over again for the Bengals now that they are targets for the Steelers and Ravens and hoping to stay out of the messy battle for the AFC's sixth playoff berth. Dalton has to have that mindset, too—lingering in the past won't help the Bengals maintain and build upon their lead.
|13||at San Diego Chargers*||6-7|
|14||vs. Indianapolis Colts*||7-4|
|15||at Pittsburgh Steelers*||5-6|
|16||vs. Minnesota Vikings||2-8|
|17||vs. Baltimore Ravens*||5-6|
*Denotes still in AFC playoff hunt
Furthermore, the Bengals can improve their playoff standing. Right now, the Colts (7-4) have the third seed in the conference because they have more wins against AFC opponents. However, the Colts are on a slide of their own, losing two of their last three games and seemingly unable to score points in the first half or make up the deficit in the second.
The New England Patriots are the AFC's third seed, but only have one more win than the Bengals. Playoff home-field advantage is still realistically in the cards for the Bengals, which only makes winning their final five games that much more important.
The Bengals thankfully didn't have an opportunity to worsen their record in Week 12, but they also didn't have the opportunity to improve it, either. Their final five games are critical to their chances to make the playoffs. Any games they win or lose will have a major ripple effect on the rest of the AFC's playoff picture. Much rests on their shoulders.
How the Bengals meet this challenge will ultimately decide the legacy of their 2013 season. No pressure, right?