Saturday Aftrnoon’s AFC Wildcard matchup pitted two familiar foes against each other in a rematch of last years AFC Wildcard game. The reeling Texans came into the game at a respectable 12-4, a mark slightly disappointing considering their 11-1 start to the season. Their stock was heading in the wrong direction having lost 1 of 2 to their division rival the Colts, losing a less than stellar effort against the Vikings, and getting walloped by the New England Patriots. Conversely, the Cincinnati Bengals came into the game with momentum on their side having won 7 of their last 8 games and boasting a defense that had been playing amongst the top in the league. With key wins over division opponents Pittsburgh and Baltimore, teams they had lost their previous 9 meetings to, the Bengals seemed to have the proverbial monkey off their back. Momentum, alas, had nothing to do with the outcome of this playoff game at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Their were several keys to the game. The running attack for both teams, the defenses for both teams, and the ability for both teams to shake off their current offensive slumps. The Texans, who despite outgaining the Bengals by a ratio of 4 to 1 in the first quarter, were unable to score touchdowns once they got into the red zone. To the Bengals credit, for the most part, the Cincinnati defense employed a bend but don’t break mentality that was able to hold the Texans to 2 field goals in their first 3 possessions. The second quarter opened up with a defensive break for the Bengals when Leon Hall jumped an out route and intercepted Matt Schaub for a 21 yard touchdown return. Andy Dalton however, was the first quarterback since 2007 to post a negative total of passing yards in a single half. The Bengals were a dull and morbid example of absolute inadequacy on the offensive side of the ball for the majority of the game. Houston was able to add another Field Goal before halftime making the midway score 9-7, advantage Texans. Arian Foster had several explosive plays in both the run and in the pass game in the first half, but it was in the 3rd stanza when he finally found paydirt. Foster was able to rack up 130 yards on the ground and another 34 yards through the air as he carried the team the rest of the game. A few Field Goals were exchanged and despite a 2nd half explosion by AJ Green, the Bengals were never able to sustain drives and more importantly, weren’t able to get the ball in the endzone.
So, there you have the cookie cutter summary of the plays in the game that led to scores. Now lets take a little deeper look into what for NFL fans everywhere, was a pathetic showing of professional football.
BenJarvis Green-Ellis was effective in the limted carries that he got. As a matter of fact his 63 yards on just 11 carries bring to mind the question of why he wasn’t given the ball more. When playing a team with as dangerous of a pass rush as the Houston Texans, perhaps throwing the ball 30 times compared to 16 rushing attempts wasn’t the correct plan of action. Speaking of plans of action, perhaps the teams that have requested permission to speak with Bengals Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden should reconsider whether he is a viable head coach in the NFL. More importantly perhaps the Cincinnati bengals should reconsider whether Gruden’s gameplans will ever be effective in a league that is predicated on unpredictability. The Bengals finished the game with a 3rd down conversion ratio of 0/9 or 0%. Pro Bowl Wideout AJ Green was an afterthought. With no catches in the entire first half, the mini-explosion Green had in the 2nd half was too little too late.
Outside of the underachievement of young supposed top tier players like Rey Maualuga (7 missed tackles) and Jermaine Gresham (5 dropped passes), two plays stand out. Both of them coming in the 4th Quarter. With the score close at 19-13, despite repeated stagnancy in the Bengals offense, Cincinnati had an opportunity in the endzone late in the game to steal a win from under the noses of Houston. AJ Green’s double move that spun corner Jonathon Joseph left him a clear 5 yards in front of the defender and streaking toward the endzone. Andy Dalton had time to throw, but delivered a very poorly thrown pass that sailed 10 yards passed the wide open AJ Green. Andy Dalton missed a throw that was arguably the biggest of his career which would have given the Bengals a 20-19 lead with 2:00 left to play. The reason this play stands out is simple. In the playoffs, its inches that mean wins and losses. It is putting a ball on a receiver that is wide open when your team needs it. Big players make big plays in big games, the old cliche. Dalton’s “unflappable” attitude and his lack of accuracy on the deep ball contributed to what fans in Cincinnati have become all too familiar with. Another disappointing loss.
The second of the two plays was to me, inexcusable play calling on behalf of Jay Gruden. It’s 4th down and 11 yards to go. The teams needs a 1st down or the Texans will get the ball back with just enough time to get a 1st down and take a knee to win the game. In a baffling move Cincinnati’s 4 wide receivers run slant routes that optimally gain 7 yards or so. Why any route, let alone your primary routes wouldnt at least get to the 1st down marker is beyond belief. Andy Dalton completed the pass for a 8 yard gain and the Bengals were left 3 yards short of a 1st down. Houston then did what needed to be done to finish out the game by gaining 2 first downs and took a knee to run the clock out.
I think the overall tone of the game was sloppy at best. The Bengals showed once again that they are not ready to take that next step to get over the hump and win a playoff game. So, the streak continues. It will now be 22 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game, and without some serious retooling and reform, Cincinnati Bengals fans have no choice to expect more of the same. The optimist in me sees a team that has 3 playoff berths in the last 4 years and a young nucleus that is only going to continue to grow. The realist in me, however, sees a team that for the better part of 2 decades has been a glaring example to the rest of the league of how to not get it done. Hats off to the Houston Texans for finding a way to win a game that was very losable, and here’s to a Bengals team with a lot of questions to answer in the off-season. Does Jay Gruden’s tenure in Cincy come to an end? Does Andy Dalton have the poise to learn from this loss and be better next year? Will the Bengals be able to add pieces in key places to make them better equipped for playoff football? Only time will tell, but as for me I’m not holding my breath.