Cincinnati just needed to take care of the 5-8 Steelers.
While Pittsburgh isn't the team it used to be, the Bengals haven't been particularly impressive in the national spotlight since Andy Dalton took over at quarterback in 2011. Sunday was their chance to help change their reputation.
With so much at stake and the postseason looming, one would think the Bengals would have embraced their situation and taken the field guns blazing. Instead, they produced a tremendous thud, the reverberations of which could affect the team all the way to January and the playoffs.
There were bright spots, such as Dalton not turning the ball over and the defense limiting Pittsburgh to 2-of-10 on third down. But that was overshadowed by the mistakes and simply uninspired football which the Bengals played for most of the 30-20 loss.
Special teams failures resulted in two of the Steelers' three first-quarter touchdowns. Further, Cincinnati didn't respond after going down seven, then 14, then 21. There was simply no fire and passion for the Bengals, who still have much to prove despite maintaining control of the AFC North.
|1.||(x) Denver Broncos||11-3|
|2.||New England Patriots||10-4|
|4.||(z) Indianapolis Colts||9-5|
|5.||(x) Kansas City Chiefs||11-3|
(x) clinched playoff berth; (z) clinched division
The biggest example of their failure to attack came in the final seconds of the first half.
With 1:14 left to play, the Bengals began driving the ball and had two timeouts remaining. At their own 33-yard line and momentum building, they didn't bother using their final timeout. A team down 27-7 should not be so conservative.
Indeed, the Bengals' offensive game plan looked very different than it had in recent weeks.
There were few moments in which Dalton opted to go deep—something only two quarterbacks have done more of this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Instead of exploiting the Steelers' coverage weaknesses as so many quarterbacks have done, Dalton opted for shorter throws and averaged only 5.2 yards per attempt.
They didn't pound the football against the Steelers' injury-plagued front seven that had been giving up 120.2 rushing yards per game. The Bengals rushed only 22 times compared to 44 pass attempts.
On defense, Cincinnati started feeling the accumulated effects of its many injured starters on the sidelines.
Without Terence Newman, second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had to line up against Antonio Brown. Though Brown only had 66 receiving yards, he caught five of six passes thrown his way and had a receiving touchdown to go with his punt-return score.
They sacked Ben Roethlisberger only once, playing on their heels for most of the game against Pittsburgh's no-huddle offense. That was despite Pittsburgh again having to cobble together its offensive line.
It was simply a flat effort by a team that is trying to get over its playoff hump. If Cincinnati can maintain control of the AFC North, it will mark a third straight postseason appearance. The last two years, the Bengals have gone one-and-done in uninspiring fashion versus the Texans.
The playoffs are about momentum. They are about passion. They are about confidence. No team goes quietly into the playoffs and opts against fighting—for yards, for scores, for the win. But the Bengals simply had no fight in them against the Steelers, which is a foreboding sign moving forward.
Hopefully this loss will fire the team up. If the Bengals can get the flat, passionless football out of their system now and turn their emotional dials up considerably over the next two weeks, then this loss will be a positive, constructive one.
Simply, this cannot be a sign of things to come for the Bengals, or one-and-done in the playoffs is almost guaranteed.