Bengals Show Wild Side, but Wild Card Baseball Remains a Bust

Announcements came like bolts of lightning Sunday evening from Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals and Carson Palmer revealed themselves to the rest of the NFL over national television. The Beng

Jerry Dowling

Announcements came like bolts of lightning Sunday evening from Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals and Carson Palmer revealed themselves to the rest of the NFL over national television. The Bengals are back in the league.

They're back in a big way, not just for the exhaling of a city's football fans but as a wild new presence in the NFL, a fresh face in a league that had already thought of everything. Seeing the Bengals on that stage as Palmer took the moment with the edges of Miami's safe mode defense, winning his home debut before a breathless public, well, it puts the Bengals in a different perspective.

The game was otherwise nothing special, just the NFL's fall-back formula for two bad teams who can't pull away from each other until someone beats the clock with the last score. A good Bengals offense was bad enough against a good Miami defense, and a bad Bengals defense was good enough against a bad Dolphins offense.

To say the Bengals were ugly is hardly a bulletin, since they were ugly for years. But they beat the Dolphins 16-13 on the national tube, a huge boost to their credibility after last year's 8-8 performance. We can't forget that the Bengals continue looking for their first winning season since 1990.

It's still hard to be thrilled about the Bengals' defense after their landmark performance, since the opponent is in such bad shape.

But at least we know the defenders can shut down an offense that has no ballast or continuity.

Ricky Williams was free to leave if he wanted, but watching the Dolphins play without him gives pause. The Bengals' defense dominated, holding Miami to 26 rushing yards and harassing an inexperienced quarterback.

But that was happening on the other side for once. On the Cincinnati side was Palmer, turning a tough learning experience against Miami's talented defense into a princely campaign for the winning field goal.

The electricity emanating from that stadium across America spoke to this win's significance for the Bengals and their fans. The Bengals avoided the 0-2 bogey and are even with Cleveland and Baltimore at 1-1. They introduced a glamorous quarterback and won a game everyone in the league watched.

But good teams don't pat themselves on the back for beating poor teams at home on national television. Good teams beat other good teams on the road, and on that score the Bengals still have a way to go.

Now the Bengals prepare to bring in the Baltimore Ravens, who aren't necessarily a good team, but they are an NFC North rival and contender. The challenge for Palmer escalates. If the Miami defense is well regarded and very good, the Baltimore defense is the standard right now.

The challenge also escalates for the Bengals defense. One can be encouraged by the defensive effort against Miami, but the Dolphins don't have Curtis Martin or Jamal Lewis. We'll see. Both Lewis and Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller have been mortal, which doesn't mean they'll be easy for the Bengals.

But it's on now. The Bengals are in the mix with three consecutive games coming against division rivals. Fortunately, none of them is a strong offensive team. If the Bengals are to prevail, that could be their edge.

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Wherever rhetoriticians are working, one of their more reliable tools is The Big Lie, which operates whenever a falsehood is told so loud and so often that it's widely accepted as truth. You hear them floating around like clockwork at this point in the baseball season, when announcers make remarks like, "The wild card has made the pennant races so much more exciting."

The people who bring us Major League Baseball gave two reasons for adding the wild card: expanded playoffs and more playoff races. Ten years into the new alignment, remembering that 1994 went away, the record shows that MLB got it about half right.

The wild card has changed the championship, now that two straight World Series winners came up from the underground. A division title is almost worthless once your frame of reference becomes seven games instead of 162. If you won your division by 20 games, it doesn't matter.

It was like that before the wild card, but at least all four playoff clubs were legitimate division champions and rarely did anyone win by 20 games. Now the most complete club in the game hiccups in October and loses to some group that won a few more than it lost, never sniffed the division lead and really has nothing but two good starting pitchers.

The Atlanta Braves have the historic misfortune of growing their dynasty in the wild card age. The Braves have won the NL East every year of it and have taken home just one world championship. The Florida Marlins, pushovers for the Braves in any NL East race, instead reached twice through the wild card and won the World Series each time.

Along with a slight decline in revenue disparity from the present labor agreement, the wild card has made the world championship accessible to eight or 10 clubs every year who wouldn't be in division races. That wild card spot in baseball is unique, because the game changes so much in the playoffs that the emperor really has no clothes.

Once the playoffs begin, it really is a whole new ball game. Those five good starters who took the ball every day and used to help the Braves win 100 games are no help for winning four of seven in 10 days. A club with two excellent starters stands an even chance.

The Braves and St. Louis Cardinals are great clubs this season, but neither will matter without winning a playoff series. The Oakland Athletics keep winning the AL West and not winning in the playoffs, marking them as champions who don't enter the championship picture.

It's to be hoped MLB resists tinkering and lets this format work for a while, because it's beginning to make sense. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has been expanded by Fox into a prime time serial made more intense because they meet in the playoffs. Knowing the wild card is a legitimate contender makes the wild card races much more interesting, even if you're holding your nose.

All that granted, it should be said emphatically that the wild card hasn't made September pennant races more exciting. In fact, not only has the wild card minimized the value of winning a division, but the expanded format has made playoff races more lopsided and less compelling.

Of 54 division races from 1995 through 2003, only 16 have been decided by three games or fewer. Throw in 18 wild card races, and the wild card era has produced 72 playoff races, only 33 percent (24) of which were decided by three games or fewer. Going back through the 19 previous seasons under the old division format (and excluding strike-torn 1981), 72 division races produced 30 decided by three games or fewer, 42 percent. And only three playoff races under the old format were decided by 15 or more games, compared with eight since the wild card.

It's pretty hard to sell September baseball anymore as a clash of titans, since the titans are resting their bones and all the action is on the deeply flawed clubs that might win anyway. The pennant races aren't nearly as close, nor is there nearly as much on the line.

But the wild card format, in its 10th year, is a proven route to the World Championship for the game's lesser lights. Opening up the playoffs has opened up the championship, but it's also mostly closed down September.