NFL Playoffs Expose Bengals' Weaknesses

It's good news that the Bengals proved they could beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by doing exactly that on Dec. 7. It also seems to have become bad news. Since that day, the Bengals have played fou

Jan 4, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

It's good news that the Bengals proved they could beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by doing exactly that on Dec. 7. It also seems to have become bad news.

Since that day, the Bengals have played four times, winning twice, but with only one encouraging performance. And that's three weeks ago, when they clinched the AFC North with a 41-17 win over a miserable Detroit team.

Thus were begun hours of testimony concerning the Bengals' greatness, their exciting presence on the playoff scene, dreams of going to the Super Bowl, maybe a little campaign for Carson Palmer as MVP. It's good to talk about the Bengals being good, why they're good and why it's good that they're good.

We're just folks, you know, and we'd rather think we're happy than not think we're happy. The Bengals suddenly gave us that choice, for which they've accepted legions of new fans and the gratitude of their old fans.

We're not vain. We don't care about being handsome or beautiful.

We're just really glad we're not ugly anymore. We can go out easily in public, maybe a door opens a little more cheerfully now. Life is better.

We'll go greedy in due time. Someday, perhaps, Marvin Lewis will be Skip Prosser, wondering why no one's excited about winning 20 games and going to the NCAA Tournament. Maybe Lewis will become Bob Huggins, taking blows for going to the tournament every year, then starving out the first weekend.

Imagine you're Marvin Lewis. You're in business to win the Super Bowl. Win the Super Bowl, and you become the man. You are in esteem and demand. More to the point, you've won the Super Bowl. So you take a failing operation to the Super Bowl tournament in three years, and a burning passion to win the Super Bowl seems to be lacking.

Lewis didn't like it when the Bengals won games in September and October and the talkers looked on them with surprised giggles. But of course the talkers were surprised, because the Bengals hadn't regularly won before Halloween in 15 years.

And if the Bengals should open the NFL playoffs Sunday by defeating the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium, surprised giggles will follow. No one will expect the Bengals to win at this level until they've proved they can do it or at least prove that they want it.

One doesn't simply summon the mentality to go out and win the Super Bowl. Football so often is decided by which team wants to win the game more, which is all about degrees of satisfaction. One man's trash is another man's treasure. We're not greedy enough for real treasure.

When the playoffs begin, football people start talking a little differently. They begin to emphasize the natural elements, like cold, wind and snow, which are said to reward a certain kind of football based on defense, a running game and, most importantly, the kind of nasty mental toughness needed to win games that are real hard to win.

That's the Steelers. That's why they win playoff games. That's why the New England Patriots have won three out of four Super Bowls. These teams are initiated. They know what it means to say the playoffs are a whole different struggle, part of which is that just entering the playoffs is no part of that struggle.

If the Indianapolis Colts should lose their playoff opener, it's a sad story, especially in light of head coach Tony Dungy's recent agony. The Colts are supposed to go all the way under the climate controls they've earned. The Bengals weren't even supposed to be in the playoffs. We're just happy to be here.

But we're going to the playoffs this weekend with a football team more reminiscent of 1995 than 2005. Three weeks ago, we lauded the Bengals' consistency through the season. As if to argue that sportswriters can't possibly know what they're talking about, the Bengals responded with two straight losses.

They could have lost 37-3 in Kansas City Jan. 1 with Akili Smith at quarterback. They could have lost at home by 10 against Buffalo a week earlier with David Shula on the sidelines. At the moment when the Bengals are writing their best history, they're also re-writing their worst.

The team that's good enough in November isn't necessarily good enough in January. Winning the AFC North didn't improve the Bengals' run defense. It didn't make competent opposition worried about playing them. It doesn't seem to have made the Bengals want more.

Instead, it seems to have made the Bengals vulnerable to back-to-back losses against two teams not even going to the playoffs. It seems to have made the Bengals into a first-round playoff patsy.

One month after announcing their arrival with a historic win in Pittsburgh, the Bengals are playoff underdogs Sunday in their own park against those same Steelers. All will remember that the Bengals won their division, but all still remember that it doesn't matter anymore.

New season. Lose and go home. No pretenders allowed. The Steelers are primed for the new season, possibly because they ended the old season seriously, because they had to.

The Bengals would certainly be sharper right now if they fought for playoff entry through the last month. But the division title, in retrospect, came easily. Victory in the playoffs will not come easily.

The Steelers come in with four consecutive wins. Backed against their demise with their loss to the Bengals, they roared back with a win over Chicago, the NFC's second seed, then beat up Minnesota, which still aspired to the playoffs. After all that, the Steelers still needed wins, which they collected against Cleveland and Detroit.

The Bengals beat Cleveland and Detroit, too, because they needed those games. But while the Steelers turned up their game to beat the Bears and Vikings, the Bengals turned down their game to lose against Buffalo and Kansas City.

Now the Steelers are hot and the Bengals aren't, the Steelers can run and the Bengals can't stop it, the Steelers have been here before and the Bengals haven't.

It's been a terrific football season. Hope it continues.