After a late score by running back Cedric Benson, the Cincinnati Bengals were less than a minute away from a 7-6 victory over the Denver Broncos last weekend, sitting atop the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens with a 1-0 record.
Instead, wide receiver Brandon Stokley caught a deflected pass for the game-winning 87-yard touchdown as time expired to seal a 12-7 win for Josh McDaniels in his coaching debut with the Broncos.
It may have only been the first week of the regular season, but it will be tough to top Stokley's catch when considering the best play of the 2009 season. It may have only been one game, but as we learned last season, one loss can determine whether or not a team earns the rights to go to the playoffs (just ask the Jets, Bucs, Broncos, Cowboys, Patriots and Bears).
Each of the six teams listed above could have made the playoffs last season had a few games gone differently. The Jets could have made the playoffs had they beat the Dolphins in Week 17. The Broncos could have won the AFC West had they not lost their final three games of the season.
These are just two examples of how one single game can affect whether or not a team makes the playoffs or not. Hopefully, the last-second loss against the Broncos doesn't come back to ruin the Bengals' playoff hopes at the end of the season.
Unfortunately, the Bengals play in the same AFC North division as the Steelers, who are reigning Super Bowl Champions, and the Ravens, whose ferocious defense helped lead them to the AFC Championship game.
The Bengals know how important each game of the regular season can be when it comes to making the playoffs. The team is already at a disadvantage for playing in a tough AFC North and can't afford to lose any more games they should win. Last weekend's game was the perfect example.
A victory over the Broncos last weekend would have been the perfect start for a Bengals team that is considered a possible "sleeper" team this season. With the return of quarterback Carson Palmer and a handful of weapons to throw to, the Bengals have the potential to have one of the top-10 offenses in the NFL.
Lucky for the Bengals, their strength of schedule ranks them 22nd in the NFL, with only six of their 16 games against playoff teams. Still, an advantage in the strength of schedule is only as helpful as the team wants to make it.
If the Bengals have any intention of reaching the playoffs this upcoming season, they will need to avoid last-minute collapses like last weekend against the Broncos.
Otherwise, it may be another long NFL season for the players and fans in Cincinnati.