They can draft all the top 10 linebackers and tackles they want and recast the playbook over and over, but until someone at Paul Brown Stadium figures out how to get these guys to stand tall in the face of adversity, the Bengals aren’t going back to the playoffs.
So did they find any in the offseason this year? Is there any substance to all Marvin Lewis’s talk about this team having a whole new attitude? Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos offers some clues.
First of all, throw out the Brandon Stokley touchdown. It was a freak occurrence—the kind of thing that makes highlight reels because it’s so rare.
Now, let’s look at the rest of the game. With less than seven minutes in the game, Palmer brought the Bengals to the line on their own nine. He then directed a scintillating touchdown drive. Every time the Bengals needed a play, they got one. Palmer was brilliant, coolly finding the right receiver on each pass until Cedric Benson punched it in from a yard out with 38 seconds left.
The drive looked like vintage Joe Montana. This is what you pay your franchise quarterback to do. Look off trouble and make the right things happen. Put the ball in the end zone with less than a minute to go to steal the game. On this one drive, the Bengals showed more poise than in perhaps the last two seasons. That’s very encouraging.
But it shouldn’t have been necessary. Had the Bengals made plays in the first 53 minutes of the ballgame, Palmer’s heroics wouldn’t have been needed.
A dropped pass on their opening drive prevented a score. A botched snap not only eliminated a field goal, but cost them 40 yards of field position. After getting the ball at the Broncos' 45 to start, two consecutive sacks killed the drive. Star players made critical mistakes—Chad Ochocinco’s two penalties wiped out huge gains; Laveranues Coles dropped three passes.
In short, we saw a lot of what we saw last season—the offense fooled around for most of the game, while the defense played its heart out. Then, with the game on the line, the Bengals made a run at it.
That’s not poise.
Leon Hall wouldn’t hate himself right now if the offense had taken care of a soft defense playing a deep Cover Two. Brandon Stokley wouldn’t be a nominee for play of the week if the Bengals would have caught the passes Palmer threw.
And yet, there are signs of hope. That final drive was magnificent, even courageous. Antwan Odom came up with a monster sack to stop the Broncos and set Palmer up for the finale. The Broncos only got close enough for a pair of 48-plus-yard field goals until Stokley conjured up his miracle.
The real test comes this week in Green Bay. A loss like the one the Bengals suffered Sunday can sink a team, stabbing its confidence right through the heart.
What will we see from the Bengals? Will they come out mad and focused? Does Coles have a 10-catch game? Does Palmer sift the Packers’ defense as effortlessly as he did the Broncos'? Do they put points on the board before the entire game is on the line? Does the defense put pressure on Aaron Rodgers and hold the Green Bay receivers in check? Do they bounce back from a heartrending loss?
We’ll know how much poise the Bengals acquired in the offseason on Sunday. Are the flashes of it they showed in the opener indicative of Cincinnati’s new attitude, or are the Bengals still searching for big-game/big-play confidence?