Getting that No. 1 pick is the only positive spin fans have been able to put on a fully miserable season in which it took the hometown squad 13 games to notch its first (and so far only) win of the year.
But in yesterday's game vs. the Miami Dolphins, they very nearly screwed up their draft-pick-clincher as well. The Bengals would secure that No. 1 pick with a loss — something they are very good at.
So, of course, they tied the game by heroically scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter. Sixteen of those points came with just 29 seconds left in the game.
Alas, after providing the biggest on-field thrills of the season — of the past several seasons — the Bengals, mercifully, did manage to pull out a loss in overtime.
If you were rooting for that loss with an eye towards a better future (which had to be what the vast majority of fans were doing, right?), don't tell any of the Bengals players. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd told ESPN after the game, “If they want us to lose, then they ain’t true fans at the end of the day."
The Bengals are closing out the lowly 2019 campaign this coming weekend with the “Battle of Ohio Part 2,” taking on a Cleveland Browns team that has had a far more respectable (if topsy-turvy) year with young gun Baker Mayfield behind center. Cleveland was in the playoff hunt until yesterday when they were eliminated from postseason contention with their loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns won handily in their first matchup with the Bengals in Cleveland in early December.
If recent history is any indication, the Bengals will win this final game, die-hards will exclaim, “They showed a lot of spark at the end of the year!” and just enough fans will return with high hopes at the start of next season that ownership will continue its tradition of relative complacency.
But with the top draft pick, fans will have sufficient reason to be excited for 2020. Quarterback and recent Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU is projected to go first in the draft, and he appears to be a superstar in the making.
Perhaps the most dramatic storyline of the Bengals’ 2019 was when the team benched veteran Andy Dalton and put backup QB Ryan Finley in for a few games to see if he might show the kind of stuff it would take to be the team’s future leader. He did not. Dalton returned to help the team win its first game of the year — followed by short-lived good vibes all around, then a quick fall back to reality by the next game — but with Burrow on the team’s radar, there’s a decent chance that the 2019 season finale will be the Red Rifle’s final game as a Bengal.
Being the Bengals, there is, of course, still a chance that this Sunday's game won't be Dalton's Cincinnati swan song. Though the longtime quarterback is beloved by much of the fanbase, most of the scenarios involving Dalton's 2020 return are the stuff of Bengal fans' nightmares. Burrow could be the back-up QB, with Dalton in a mentor role. Or Burrow could pull an Eli Manning and tell the Bengals he'll refuse to play for them if drafted, forcing some sort of trade. Or — TRIGGER WARNING! DO NOT READ THE NEXT FEW WORDS IF YOU ARE A RIDE-OR-DIE CINCINNATI FAN — the Bengals could bypass Burrow altogether and take someone else.
Regardless, this weekend's meaningless Bengals/Browns season finale will offer a chance to root for the hometown team without conflict and maybe give a genuine Cincinnati sports "good guy" a nice send-off.
1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 29. $64-$160. Paul Brown Stadium, One Paul Brown Stadium, Downtown, bengals.com.