The Cincinnati Bengals are 9-5 and not far from the AFC North title. If they win it, it will mark the third straight year they make the playoffs. However, this year, something must change.
The Bengals must win a playoff game.
For the last two seasons, Cincinnati has gone one-and-done in the postseason, bested in the Wild Card Round each time by the Houston Texans. Their old playoff nemesis is done, their two wins assuring them there will be no football for them in January. But questions about the Bengals' ability to make a deep playoff run still remain.
|AFC Playoff Standings, Through Week 15|
|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|
|(z): Clinched division; (x) Clinched playoff berth|
None of those questions can be answered without a playoff win. Indeed, they will only get louder and more pressing. The measure of a team's success, right or wrong, is its ability to reach, and then win in, the postseason. And time is of the essence in Cincinnati to get this done. Here's why the Bengals must find playoff success this season, before the window closes.
Because This Is A Very Good Team
The Bengals are a very good football team, one that could easily have 11 wins right now instead of nine if it weren't for two overtime losses. They have some of the best depth in the league, on both offense and defense. They have defeated the Green Bay Packers with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, held the New England Patriots to no touchdowns and put up 42 points in a defeat of the AFC South-leading Indianapolis Colts, all this year.
On offense, the Bengals rank second in red-zone touchdown percentage, earning six points on 71.79 percent of their scoring tries. They average an 11th-best 25.3 points per game, are 10th in yards per game and seventh in time of possession.
Taken alone, quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis might not cut an imposing figure. But together, alongside one of the league's best offensive lines, they make up one of the most dangerous, most balanced offenses in the NFL.
|Notable Bengals Wins, 2013|
|3||vs. Green Bay Packers||34-30|
|5||vs. New England Patriots*||13-6|
|7||at Detroit Lions||27-24|
|13||at San Diego Chargers||17-10|
|14||vs. Indianapolis Colts*||42-28|
|(*): Likely playoff teams|
The Bengals also boast an above-average defense. It ranks sixth in yards per game allowed at 318.6, 15th in third-down conversions given up per game, sixth in points per game allowed at 19.6 and 10th in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage, at 53.12 percent.
Their defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 37 times this year, continuing to effectively bring pressure even after losing top defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a knee injury in Week 9. The unit has also intercepted opposing quarterbacks 14 times and forced 12 fumbles, with 10 of them recovered by Cincinnati.
Most impressively, though, is how deep the Bengals are on defense. Losing both Atkins and starting cornerback Leon Hall hasn't really negatively affected the team. Terence Newman's knee injury, which has him sidelined potentially until the playoffs, has stretched the secondary thin—to a negative degree—but it has been impressive how both deep and talented the Bengals defensive roster is as a whole this year.
To see all of this talent wasted by the Bengals either missing the playoffs or reaching them and losing immediately is simply unacceptable this year. This is no longer the team that earns a postseason berth without beating any teams of note. The Bengals have hung with some of the NFL's best opposition and come out with wins. They must be able to do the same thing in the playoffs.
This Bengals team, as we know it, may not stay this way very long. With all that talent comes the need to pay it what its worth. Though the Bengals have been significantly under the salary cap nearly every year, bigger contracts are coming due.
Defensive end Michael Johnson is a free agent in 2014, and he's also Pro Football Focus' third-ranked player at his position (subscription required). Green, Dalton, Gresham and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are all free agents in 2015. The Bengals cannot assume this high concentration of talent will remain around for the foreseeable future. They might not be able to afford to do so.
The fact remains that the Bengals can beat whoever they want in the regular season and it won't matter if they can't get it done in the postseason. They have the talent and ability to make a deep playoff run. They just have to do it, because the opportunities they have been afforded by having such a good roster of players won't last forever.
Because Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer Won't Be Around Forever
It's not as though these talented players joined the Bengals and played to their best of their potential all by themselves. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden have molded the Bengals into this three-year playoff contenders, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.
With many head coaching vacancies expected after this season wraps, the expectation is that Gruden and Zimmer will draw interest from teams needing new coaches.
Gruden could be of interest to the Washington Redskins after they move on from Mike Shanahan—he'd be a good fit to help Robert Griffin III learn the ins and outs of being a pocket passer. Zimmer could be a candidate to replace Gary Kubiak in Houston, as CBS Sports' Pete Prisco suggests, with the Texans needing both to improve their defense as well as a tough-minded coach, which Zimmer certainly is.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman says six to eight head coaches—if not more—could get the axe at season's end, which means six to eight teams that could come calling to either Gruden or Zimmer for interviews. And they'd be smart to accept them.
A head coaching opportunity doesn't come around very often and, without a playoff win this year, the two coordinators might believe they have a better opportunity to be Super Bowl contenders elsewhere.
Playoff success for the Bengals this year could influence Gruden and Zimmer to stay, even if other teams reach out for their services. They could choose to stick with the promising Bengals rather than build something new elsewhere, now that they would have tangible results for all their hard work.
Three years of treading water, however, could make new pastures seem much greener. And then the Bengals would have the daunting task of replacing one or both of their coordinators. That could mean a new offensive or defensive scheme and the prospect of starting from scratch. Who knows if the Bengals could reach the playoffs in a year's time with new systems in place.
Getting a playoff win, or two or three, would go a long way to keeping the well-oiled and effective status quo.
Because Marvin Lewis Cannot Be On A Short Leash
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and team owner Mike Brown have been working together for 11 seasons. Lewis has been the only Bengals head coach to really be able to break Brown down—about personnel decisions, about spending and about the team's direction. Brown actually trusts Lewis, and anyone even vaguely familiar with Brown knows how hard that trust is to earn.
But for all that trust, for all of the ups and downs of the 11 seasons Brown and Lewis have been together, the truth is that the Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990, before Lewis was with the team. At some point, Brown's respect for Lewis won't be enough to keep his job safe or at least to afford Lewis the relative freedom he has had (freedom, as much as Brown will give a coach) without playoff success.
For all accounts, Lewis appears to be a dream to work for. He's a "player's coach," but not to the extent that it's a detriment to his team or to his ability to do his job. In fact, that player's coach personality is likely why the Bengals have not just been comfortable bringing troubled players into their locker room but also able to get them to focus on football and be better people off the field.
At one point, the Bengals were a joke because of all of the arrests their players piled up. That era is mostly in the past, because the Bengals, under Lewis, were able to see and reap the rewards of taking calculated risks.
The risks are paying off on the field, and Brown has become a bit more generous with his salary cap money. Good players are getting new contracts rather than leaving by the droves in free agency with the Bengals' wallet shut. This has increased incrementally with Brown's trust and belief in Lewis and his vision for the Bengals, but it could wane without a playoff win.
Three straight trips to the postseason and nothing to show for it can be and has been more than enough reason for an owner to shorten the leash on his head coach or even cutting bait entirely. The freer Lewis has been with the Bengals, the better the team has gotten. Anything that threatens to take that away will reverse this progress immediately.
Though there's been no indication Brown is losing patience with Lewis, wins in the postseason keep this from being part of the discussion.
Because It Would Answer Questions About Andy Dalton
No person has taken more blame for the Bengals' two years of first-round playoff losses than their quarterback, Andy Dalton. And it's not unwarranted.
Dalton was abysmal in his two trips to the postseason, both on the road in Houston against the Texans. He hasn't thrown a touchdown in the playoffs, but he has thrown an interception—four of them, in fact. Though he had a completion percentage of 64.29 in his first loss to the Texans, he threw three picks. He only completed 46.67 percent of his passes in his second playoff loss in Houston. His postseason quarterback rating is a paltry 48.6.
The good news is that the Bengals have a good enough run game and defense that they could actually win a playoff game even if Dalton plays poorly. The bad news is that's not going to be enough to silence Dalton's critics or erase doubts that he's the Bengals' long-term answer at the position. He needs to have a commanding postseason performance, and this would be a good year for that to happen.
|Andy Dalton's Yearly Improvement, 2011-2013|
|Year||Comp. %||Yards||TDs||INTs||YPA||Sacks||QB Rate|
Dalton has already outplayed some of the league's better quarterbacks this season. Now he just has to do it when it really matters. Dalton often wilts under the national spotlight. In prime time regular-season games, he has two wins to four losses. Stepping up, with confidence and likely on the road in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, would do a lot for him and for his team.
There are more moving parts to a football team than just the quarterback, and of course the Bengals defense could have done more in their teams playoff losses. But it's hard not to look at Dalton's two postseason performances and point the blame at him. And if it happens again this year, the odds of Cincinnati handing him a new contract when or before he's a free agent in 2015 begin to slim.
Dalton has the potential to be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback—and the game's MVP. He's shown he can complete 70 percent of his passes, he's thrown three or more touchdowns in a game five times this year and 61.36 percent of all of the touchdowns the Bengals have scored this year have been via passes he's thrown.
He has carried his team and he has been clutch in moments when it's counted—like in his nine career game-winning drives and five fourth-quarter comebacks. Most importantly, Dalton has shown improvement. He'll end 2013 with more yards than he had in 2012, when he finished with more yards than he had in his rookie 2011 season. The same goes with touchdowns. His quarterback rating is on the rise by the year, as are his yards per attempt. He just has one more hurdle to clear: getting a playoff victory.
Nobody stands to benefit more from the Bengals winning in the playoffs this year than Dalton. No one will ask "can he?" about his ability to lead his team to a postseason win. One important check-box on the "Is Dalton worth keeping?" to-do list will be marked off. His future in the league could be decided by what he does in this year's playoffs. That future will be bright only with a win.