Sunday, November 01, 2015

6-0 and Uh-Oh

Well, my beloved Bengals have matched their franchise best record to start a season at 6-0 (the other two times being 1975 and 1988).

And as fate would have it (terribly, cruel, vicious fate) the one team that has to stand in our way of being 7-0 is none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers, which means we will be 6-1.

They are the same team that put an end to the 1975 team's 6-0 start.  They lost two to the Steelers that year.  Of course, that was the Steel Curtain and they'd go on to win the Super Bowl that year despite the Bengals only losing three games that entire season.

In 1988 the Bengals dominated the Steelers by a combined score of 59-19.  In fact, in the 1980's the Bengals dominated the Steelers.

But since the Bengals entered a blackhole that finally ended when Marvin Lewis came aboard in 2003, the Steelers have always beaten the Bengals.

Even in Marvin's era, he has only notched 7 victories agains them.

When Marvin finally managed to win the AFC North, Cincy was able to beat Pitt in Heinz Field to essentially win the AFC North title, but it was in the first round of the playoffs where the Steelers did their real damage when Kimo Vol Ollfohen ruined Carson Palmer's knee on the second play of the game and the Bengals imploded while the Steelers went on to win a Super Bowl as a wild card.

The troubles with the Steelers continued.  The only real bright spots were a 13-10 win for Cincy in Pitt again in 2012 the knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs and propelled Cincy into the playoffs as a wild card.

Then in 2013 Cincy opened up at home against the Steelers and beat them on Monday Night Football on their way to the AFC North title.

Last year, though, the Bengals led the AFC North for a majority of the season, until the final week . . . in Pitt.  The Bengals suffered key injuries (most notably to AJ Green who was on his way to setting the Bengals up in great position - in the Steelers' redzone - to pull out a win when he was hit and given a concussion and worse, he fumbled) and lost the AFC North.

This year the Steelers are the ones suffering injuries - as Big Ben (Bengal killer #1) has been out with a knee injury for the past four weeks (where the Steelers went 2-2).  However, he is back to face the Bengals.  And did anyone really doubt that he wouldn't be ready to face the Bengals?

Worse yet, not only do the Steelers have Big Ben, but they have Le'Veon Bell who has had some huge games vs. Cincy and then they have the third component of the "Killer B's) in Antonio Brown, who has maybe been the biggest Bengal killer of all: witness his punt returns for touchdowns in 2011, 2013, and 2014.  Throw in his game sealing touchdown catch in the last game of the year last year, and he's just ripped Cincy's heart out time and again.

The only glimmers of hope the Bengals have are below

1.  An amazing offense.  Yes, the Steelers have scored points at an incredible clip, but so have the Bengals.  In fact, they feature NFL's third best offense.  Andy Dalton, who has not exactly played his best agains the Steelers, is playing out of his mind.  In fact, he is the top rated quarterback in the NFL with a quarterback rating of 116.

Cincy features potent skill players at every offensive position - Tyler Eifert is a man among boys at the tight end position.  AJ Green is a TD bomb waiting to happen.  Marvin Jones is also a deep threat.  Mohamud Sanu is a strong receiver out of the slot.  Gio Bernard is a great change of pace back and Jeremy Hill is a bulldozer.

If it comes down to a shoot out, the Bengals have the weapons to win it.  If they avoid turnovers.

2.  A great pass rush.  While Cincy's run defense is average at best (and that doesn't bode well with Bell heading our way), they can get after the quarterback with Carlos Dunlap (second in the NFL in sacks) and Geno Atkins (who is among the league leaders in sacks from the defensive tackle position).  These guys can get to Ben.  The question is, can they sack him?

Ben has made a living off of shrugging off a would be sacker and heaving the ball deep to Antonio Brown for a big play.

Can they bring Ben down?  Ben shouldn't be as mobile as usual given his knee injury.  Maybe the hits will take their toll and lead Ben into a couple of turnovers.

3.  Solid special teams.  Adam Jones is a great punt returner.  Nugent has made some key field goals (most notably the final two against Seattle to pull out a come-from-behind win).  And our Pro Bowl punter Kyle Huber can flip the field.  But he has bad memories of Brown in Pittsburgh.  Two years ago Huber was lost for the season when Brown ran a punt back and Huber had his jaw broken on a vicious hit.  Then last year Brown broke a tackle and scored again on Cincy.  The best bet for Cincy - just be good enough on offense where you don't have to punt.

There are plenty of causes for concern though -

1.  Fate.  The Bengals have never been 7-0.  And worse yet, they have never played particularly well against the Steelers.

2.  The run defense.  Bell could have a huge day running the ball.  If that happens, then the Steelers don't have to throw a lot and put Big Ben in harm's way.

3.  The Killer B's - somehow Ben, Bell, or Brown will find a way to make a play that will lead to a 6-1 beginning of the season for Cincy.

Still, even at 6-1 all will not be lost.  The Bengals will still have a one game lead in the division.  The Steelers still have to play at Denver and host the Colts.  If the can manage to lose two more games to drop them to 5 losses, and if the Bengals can beat the Steelers in Cincy in mid December, then they can win the division.  Maybe.  Maybe for once fate won't be so cruel and twisted.

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