For the third straight season, the Cincinnati Bengals have gone one-and-done in the playoffs, falling 27-10 to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. It was the team's first home loss of the year, but it wasn't the first time its offense cost it a playoff run.
While Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton managed to finally throw the first playoff touchdown of his three-year career, he also threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away once.
Running back Giovani Bernard also had a costly lost fumble in the first half when the Bengals were knocking on San Diego's goal line. He had a drop later in the game, rivaled only in importance to another one committed by wide receiver A.J. Green when his team was down 10 points late in the second half.
These are the sorts of disappointing offensive plays that we've seen from the Bengals and Dalton both this year and in their two previous playoff losses. We've seen them overcome plays like this before—Dalton's four-interception performance in a Bengals 34-17 Week 17 win over the Baltimore Ravens serves as an example.
What was different in this game, however, were the plays offensive coordinator Jay Gruden called, particularly in the second half. The Bengals emerged from halftime with a 10-7 lead and the football and promptly went three-and-out, the drive ending on a sack on third down with four yards to go.
The question there was: Why didn't the Bengals opt to hand off to running back Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis? Green-Ellis had six carries in the first half, netting him a respectable 27 yards. However, he only had two more carries in the second half, as Gruden ordered one pass play after another.
Yes, the Bengals eventually found themselves down four, then seven, then 10 points, but abandoning the run completely because they were playing from behind is the kind of one-dimensional thinking that ultimately prevented the Bengals from finding any offensive rhythm in the second half.
Despite Cincinnati's third-ranked pass-protecting offensive line, Dalton felt the pressure from San Diego's front seven, which was revitalized by the return of linebacker Melvin Ingram. He was sacked three times, hit six times and hurried significantly more than he has been at practically any point in the 2013 regular season. Yet Gruden still wanted him to attempt several passes.
Ultimately, Dalton threw 51 passes with 29 completions for 334 yards. while the team collectively ran 25 times. While the run game averaged a good 4.5 yards per carry, it ran only 10 times in the second half. And nothing could best exemplify how poor of a strategy this unbalanced attack was than a crucial fourth down with the Bengals trailing 10 points.
At the San Diego 41-yard line, the Bengals had just three yards to go to gain a first down. Instead of handing it off to Green-Ellis or even the shifty Bernard, however, Gruden dialed up a deep pass for receiver Marvin Jones. It was incomplete.
With Dalton under pressure for the majority of the second half and the passing game not finding its groove as a result, it was a curious time not to run the ball. The Bengals, with over four minutes left to play and down 10 points, would have benefited far more from trying to keep the drive alive than taking a high-risk home-run shot.
Gruden's pass calls were an odd combination of being far too conservative at the wrong times and too aggressive when something higher percentage—or a run—would have been the smarter choice. They did little to help a quarterback who was getting uncharacteristically knocked around and a efense that played extraordinarily well through much of the game.
Gruden also did nothing the Chargers weren't expecting in the game. From the NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala comes this gem:
With the Chargers having faced the Bengals in Week 13, it's astounding Gruden added no wrinkles to his play calls on Sunday. Especially because of how important this game—and this potential win—was to the team.
With Gruden's name in the rotation for the many head-coaching vacancies around the league, this game did little to advance the notion he could be coaching elsewhere next season.
Which may not be good news for the Bengals. Gruden's game plan wasn't malleable enough to adapt to Dalton having one of his bad days—which aren't so few and far between not to have a contingency situation at the ready should it happen.
Cincinnati's offense simply did not look like itself in this game. Some credit certainly goes to the Chargers, but San Diego came to town with one of the league's overall worst defenses. Granted, the playoffs can make teams do unexpected things, but it was as if Gruden called plays that worked to the Chargers' strengths, rather than played up their weaknesses.
Something will need to change for the Bengals this offseason. Three straight years making the playoffs and earning exactly zero wins is not something they should be satisfied with. But instead of assigning blame to Dalton alone or to head coach Marvin Lewis, Gruden should shoulder the burden.
If, for whatever reason, an offense is having problems executing the game plan as called, then it is time to alter that strategy, not forge ahead and hope things click. It was as if Gruden wasn't aware of what was happening to his offense on the field, as though we were seeing things more clearly through the glow of our television screens than Gruden was through the driving rain in Cincinnati.
That lack of vision did the Bengals no help on Sunday and was the top reason they lost to a team that they could have and should have beaten. Though Dalton will be the person raked over the coals for the next 12 months for what happened against the Chargers, Gruden's fingerprints are the ones all over the scene of the crime.