Late Woes Proof That Marvin Lewis' Bengals Still Not to Be Trusted as Contenders

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystSeptember 14, 2018

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton looks to pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

The good news is that after racing out to a 21-0 lead over the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals hung on for a 34-23 win that elevated them to 2-0 and first place in the AFC North.

The bad news is that after racing out to a 21-0 lead, the Bengals had to hold on for a 34-23 win over the Ravens—a game in which Cincinnati narrowly averted yet another prime-time collapse.

A contest that started out looking like a party in the Queen City ended as a stark reminder that we can't trust these Bengals as legitimate division contenders. Not yet, anyway.

Early on, it appeared Thursday night's affair would send a much different message: that the Bengals weren't just contenders but might be the best team in the AFC North.

That's how good they looked over the first 18 minutes or so. Cincinnati was dominant on both sides of the ball. The offense gained yards seemingly at will. The defense harassed Joe Flacco and stymied the Ravens.

After Andy Dalton found A.J. Green for the receiver's third touchdown catch of the half, it appeared the rout was on.

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 13:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass against Tyus Bowser #54 of the Baltimore Ravens during the first half at Paul Brown Stadium on September 13, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Imag
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Ravens answered with a touchdown, but the Bengals returned serve. When Cincy took over on downs at its 38-yard line with 1:21 left in the first half, up 28-7, the game appeared to be well in hand.

Then came the first reminder that few teams in the NFL over the last decade-plus have been better at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory than the Marvin Lewis-led Bengals. Rather than run the ball against a Ravens team that was without inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (knee) and at least make Baltimore burn its timeouts, the Bengals dialed up three passes that took all of 13 seconds off the clock and then punted.

The Ravens, with just over a minute left in the second quarter and three timeouts in hand, drove and scored to make it 28-14 at the half.

After intermission, the Bengals had trouble getting in sync offensively. With tailback Joe Mixon sidelined for most of the third quarter with a bad knee, the Bengals had no running game to speak of. Dalton couldn't get the passing attack going either—in part because Cincinnati receivers had a case of the dropsies. After those three scores in the first half (the first three-touchdown game of his career), Green was shut out in the third quarter.

By the time that quarter ended, the Ravens had closed the gap to 28-17. Baltimore's first drive of the final period resulted in a touchdown that made it 28-23. The Ravens had all the momentum, and the whispers had started both at Paul Brown Stadium and on social media.

It was happening—again. The Bengals were choking—again.

To their credit, they stopped the bleeding. Cincinnati drove for a field goal that bumped the lead to eight, and then the defense stiffened, as safety Shawn Williams forced a turnover that resulted in the game-sealing score.

Frank Victores/Associated Press

The win had Dalton talking up his team's ceiling and resolve while speaking with the NFL Network's Michael Irvin on the postgame show.

"I definitely feel like we have the potential to be really good," Dalton said. "So, for us, we just have to keep finding ways to win. We've done that the last two weeks, and we just have to keep that rolling."

To be fair, the potential is there. Dalton threw four first-half touchdown passes for the second time in his career Thursday night. In addition to Green's huge outing, 23-year-old Tyler Boyd caught six passes for 91 yards and a score. Despite being in and out of the game with knee woes, Mixon piled up 87 total yards. And a defense keyed by tackle Geno Atkins and rookie end Sam Hubbard sacked Flacco four times and forced three turnovers.

But all that was barely enough to hold off a Baltimore team that was exposed as being nowhere near as good as it looked in last week's 47-3 blowout of the Buffalo Bills. The Bengals allowed 425 total yards to the Ravens. As great as Dalton's first half was, he was a pedestrian 10-of-17 for 87 yards in the second.

Yes, the Bengals are 2-0 and in first place in the division by themselves. The last time the team was in this position was three years ago—also when it most recently made the postseason. But the near-collapse Thursday followed an opener in which the Bengals fell behind 13-3 and 23-10 to a Colts team that approximately no one is penciling in for a playoff spot.

This isn't to say the Bengals are paper tigers. Frankly, an argument can be made that Cincinnati's the most balanced team in the division. There are weapons on offense. Playmakers on defense. And when the O-line keeps Dalton's jersey clean (as it did Thursday, shutting out a Ravens pass rush that logged six sacks in Week 1), he can be a good NFL quarterback.

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 13:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass in the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium on September 13, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

But this offense was last in the NFL one year ago. And Dalton's win against the Ravens lifted his career record in games under the lights to 6-14.

We won't get into his playoff record (0-4). Or Lewis' (0-7). Two shaky early-season wins over mediocre teams do not a contender make.

We won't have to wait long to see just how good these Bengals are. Three of Cincy's next four games are against playoff teams from a year ago. They face trips to Carolina and Atlanta followed by home games with the Miami Dolphins and the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, who've beaten the Bengals six straight times (including Cincinnati's last playoff game).

A win over a playoff-caliber team on the road would go a long way toward solidifying the Bengals' case as a postseason contender. Vanquishing their Steel City nemesis would do so that much more.

But while the final score of Thursday's game offered increased optimism about Cincinnati's 2018 prospects, how we got there tempered it.

The Bengals might be that "really good" team Dalton referenced. Or they might resemble the mediocre squads of the last two seasons.

The fact is, we still don't know Who Dey are.


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