sit at 9-4-1 atop the AFC North, but they have two of their hardest games left: home vs. Denver and on the road vs. Pittsburgh.
This is almost the exact same situation they were in back in 2006. They sat at 8-6. They had to win just one of their final two games: in Denver and at home vs. Pittsburgh.
They blew the game in Denver, thanks to turnovers and a missed PAT and then a batched onside kick. Then at home against Pittsburgh they forced a key turnover on their own goal line. Then they drove all the way down the field to set up for a chip shot field goal, which Shane Graham missed. In OT Big Ben threw a TD pass on the first play and there went the playoffs.
This season the Bengals likely have to win one of their final games to make the playoffs. They blew a golden opportunity to seal up the division two weeks ago when their defense forgot to show up in the fourth quarter, giving up 21 points in a 21-42 lopsided loss at home. After winning 12 straight home games, they now have lost 2 in a row at home.
Last week they throttled Cleveland 30-0, their fourth straight road win.
So here they face Denver and Petyon Manning, whom they are 0-8 against. They have never beaten Manning.
Worse yet, they have to face them in prime time, where Andy Dalton is 2-6.
However, I don't know if I can see them losing three straight at home.
Despite Dalton's miserable performances on prime time, they have a few things going for them. First, they have committed to Jeremy Hill as their primary runner. This has given their offense a much needed identity. Second, AJ Green, despite having a quiet week in Cleveland, is on a roll, coming off a 200 plus yard performance against the Steelers. Third, outside of their wretched fourth quarter against the Steelers (where they gave up a 95 yard touchdown pass and two rushing touchdowns), the defense has really come on - throttling the Saints, Titans, Texans, and Browns.
While I don't expect them to throttled the Broncos, who have one of the best offenses in the game, I sure hope they can keep the Bengals in the game. If they can do that, Hue Jackson, Cincy's offensive coordinator, will hopefully grind it out with Hill - to the tune of about 25 carries, while also giving 15 carries to Gio Bernard while tossing him 5-10 other passes and hitting AJ Green on a few big plays. Maybe they will be able to find a few creative plays for Mohammad Sanu to break the game open.
Then they will have to win in Pittsburgh, where they did two years ago to also make the playoffs.
If they finish 11-4-1 they will certainly win the division. If they finish 10-5-1, they will likely be a wild card and have to play again in Pittsburgh or Indy.
The good news: this is the Bengals fourth straight winning season.
The bad news: they haven't won a playoff game since 1991.
The good news: they have a core of young talented players, several of whom are receiving from injuries (Tyler Eifert, tight end; Vontaze Burfict, linebacker; and Geno Atkins, defensive tackle, who is still working his way back from a blown out knee suffered in the middle of last season).
The bad news: they have missed on some value picks (Marqus Hunt, defensive end, second round; Devon Still, defensive tackle, second round; Dontay Moch, defensive end, third round; Dre Kirkpatrick, corner, first round (though there is a bit of hope with him); and Jermaine Gresham, tight end, first round).
The good news: they have hit on a large number of mid round picks (Mohammad Sanu, WR, third round; George Ilokoa, fifth round; Marvin Jones, WR, fifth round, Geno Atkins, DT, fourth round).
The bad news: they have struck out on numerous mid round picks, especially lately.
The good news: the Bengals have great depth. This year we have two first round picks at corner (Dre Kirkpatrick and Darquez Dennard) who have rarely seen the field because of all the talent they have assembled. This is a great sign as for years in the late '80's through the '90's, a first round pick for the Bengals was guaranteed a starting spot on the team.
The bad news: they are not big spenders in free agency. I don't expect them to waste tens of millions of dollars; however, they could find a few gems if they were just willing to pay for them. How hard would it be to spend a little more to bring in some legit linebacker talent? They didn't want to splurge on backups, so they let a solid swing tackle in Anthony Collins leave for Tampa Bay (where he isn't living up to expectations) and they sing Marshall Newhouse on the cheap. Then when they lose starting right tackle, Andre Smith, they plug in Newhouse, who is so terrible, they have to sign Eric Winston off the scrap heap to try and make up for Newhouse. They could just have spent a little more and retained Collins.
The good news: their running backs. Jeremy Hill is a perfect combination of Rudi Johnson and Corey Dillon while Gio Bernard is a modern version of James Brooks. Hill can lug it 25 times for 100 yards while Bernard can chip in 15 carries and haul in 5 passes per game for around 100 yards. These two compliment the Bengals excellent stable of receivers quite well.
The bad news: the sudden lack of pass rush. Last year the Bengals had 40 plus sacks. This year, they haven't broken 20. It will help when Atkins returns to his all universe form, Burfict can play a full season, and replacement for Michael Johnson can be found (so far Marqus Hunt has failed in that regard).
The good news: Andy Dalton has been great at times, such as when he carved up the Panthers and Saints.
The bad news: Andy Dalton has been wretched at times, such as when he had a horrid 2.2 passer rating vs the Browns and failed to do anything against the Colts.
The verdict: hopefully, the Bengals can win one of their final two games to make the playoffs. That would be a great accomplishment, but I don't see them winning that elusive playoff game, at least until their defense returns to the top ten.