The Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) still have their destiny in their own hands, but after last week’s devastating buzzer-beating loss to the Cowboys in Ohio that snapped a four game winning streak, a win in tonight’s game against the struggling Philadelphia Eagles is a must for Marvin Lewis’s men if they are to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
One of the major obstacles the Bengals must overcome is complacency – throughout their history, the Bengals simply haven’t been able to be complacent as they’ve barely ever been good enough to beat anybody, though they boast a 4-3 winning record against the Eagles in Philadelphia and own the all-time series 7-3-1. The Eagles showed last week with their walk off victory over the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay that while they might not have any playoff aspirations remaining after a seven game slide, they have a lot of talent, and many of their playing and coaching staff are now performing with their jobs on the line, such as Andy Reid, the longest tenured coach in the league, and backup quarterback Nick Foles who has shown brief flashes in relief of the injured and clapped out, concussed Michael Vick.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has come into the league and started from his very first game, but has received considerably less scrutiny, praise, and criticism than his contemporaries drafted in the last three years – what you might call the ‘Tebow era’, where Quarterbacks have never felt so high profile off the field as well as on. Unassuming, but quietly confident, Dalton commands the complete respect of his teammates but operates outwith the direct media spotlight in the smaller market of Cincinnati, and that probably suits him best.
The NFL has become “win-now”, thanks to the amazing rookie numbers put up by Cam Newton (#1 in Dalton’s draft class), the incredible pro-ready poise by Andrew Luck at Indianapolis, taking last year’s worst team in football to the post season, and the exciting hybrid style of RG3 in Washington. Between these three, an impossibly high bar has been set for all future rookie quarterbacks to try and clear, or else risk being labelled a bust before becoming a sophomore. Against this backdrop, Dalton is in many ways, a throwback, a developing quarterback who has been given the time and conditions to improve with a young receiving core around him without fantastic expectations weighing him down. Not blessed with RG3’s speed, or Cutler’s arm strength, Dalton has simply had to work harder, and prepare smarter in an unforgiving division in the AFC North.
For Dalton and the Bengals the next step is to conquer the franchise’s longest haunting ghost – beating the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, at Heinz field. While most Bengals fans would consider the Steelers their biggest rival, and the Bengals have tried hard to emulate the successful model of the Steelers over the years by hiring Dick LeBeau, then Marvin Lewis, as head coach, and becoming a defence orientated team, the record between the two has been incredibly one sided, with Pittsburgh holding a 53-32 advantage, including the last 5 meetings between the pair. There are shades of tennis in this relationship - upon another defeat to Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Andy Roddick glumly pronounced “If you want to call it a rivalry, I’m going to have to start winning a couple of them”. The same is true for the Bengals. If they wish to be taken seriously in the AFC North, never mind in the wider NFL, they are going to have to start finding a way to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This year’s Week 16 matchup looks very likely to determine the destination of the 6th and final wildcard place in the NFL. Regardless of other permutations, there’s almost no way for the Bengals to overcome their lacklustre 1-3 divisional record if they sustain another loss to the Steelers this season after a lifeless defeat in Week 7 at Paul Brown stadium. This year, Pittsburgh represents not only a mental hurdle for Dalton and the Bengals to try and overcome, but a physical, tangible, obstacle.