Well, it all comes down to this. The third best season in Bengals' history comes down to tonight. And the sad thing is if the Bengals play as they have the past six times they've been to the playoffs, they will end up as the Bungals again and their magical season, which included a team record 8-0 run to open the season, will all be for nothing.
A win for Cincy - remember, they haven't won a playoff game since 1991 - would be huge for this franchise.
And it might just save Marvin Lewis, who is 0-6 in the playoffs, his job.
The good about this season -
Andy Dalton - he played amazing. Even when they lost two games while he was a starter, the losses couldn't be blamed on him. When they lost to Houston 6-10, Tyler Eifert dropped every pass that came his way and AJ Green, after Dalton drove them into Houston's redzone, fumbled to seal the game. Then when they lost 31-34 to Arizona, it was Dalton's great play in the fourth quarter that got the Bengals back in the game. It was his offensive line's fault and his defense's fault for that loss.
Hue Jackson's play calling on offense. Until Dalton got hurt against Pittsburgh, Hue had the Bengals in the top ten offensively. He has more weapons than any other team in the league at his disposal: a top five receiver (AJ Green), a deep threat (Marvin Jones), a versatile slot receiver (Mo Sanu), a Pro Bowl TE (Tyler Eifert), a bruiser at tailback (Jeremy Hill), and a scat-bat stud at tailback (Gio Bernard). He has made great use of all of them. It would have been interesting to see just how many points and yards this group would have put up with a healthy Dalton all season. Still, with a first year starting QB, AJ Mccarran, the Bengals finished the season 2-1 (their only loss a 17-20 OT loss on the road to the Broncos).
Adam Jones' play at CB. He has been an absolute stud in the secondary for us this year.
The bad about this season -
Dalton's injury. Yes, he hasn't won a playoff game, but he had the Bengals at 10-2 when he broke his right thumb early in the game vs. Pittsburgh.
Jeremy Hill's lack of big plays. For a kid who rushed for 1,000 yards over the final 8 games last season, Hill just hasn't been explosive this year. He did rack up 11 touchdowns, but the big runs have been almost nonexistent.
The offensive line play. Last year this team mauled people as they were sixth in rushing, but this year they have given up too many sacks in big games (Houston and Denver) and had some killer penalties. It's just too hard to overcome a first and 20 situation.
Dre Kirkpatrick. He was supposed to have a breakout year after a stellar camp, but he has yet to intercept a pass and has given up a couple big plays when he failed to wind up on the same page as safety Reggie Nelson.
So . . . the Steelers.
What I hope will happen: Cincy will control the game with Hill and Gio to limit McCarron's passing. By doing that, they keep the stellar Steeler offense on the sideline. The Steeler's secondary is the weak link, so when Cincy does pass, they find a way to go deep. With the Steelers missing their starting running back, Big Ben airs it out and the Bengals find a way to pick him off - after all he has thrown very costly interceptions this year. Hopefully, that trend continues and the Bengals come out on top 20-16.
What will probably happen: Cincy will keep it close . . . for the first half, but they won't make the plays in the second half, which is usually what happens, and the Steelers pull away with a couple big passes to Brown and Bryant and dominate the Bungals 31-17.
On the bright side: when (I mean if) the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis may well step aside. He has done an amazing job to turn this wretched franchise around. Anyone who remembers the years 1992-2002 will know that even being in the playoffs was tantamount to a Super Bowl appearance. But now that he turned this franchise around by selecting Carson Palmer and pairing him with a ton of talent that was amassed previously (Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Willie Anders, Corey Dillon, and TJ Houshmandzadeh) to win the division in 2005 and 2009. Then he blew up the franchise in 2011 and added a ton of new talent (drafting AJ Green and Andy Dalton in '11 and Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu in '12 and Tyler Eifer and Gio Bernard in '13 and Jeremy Hill in '14) and won the division again in 2013 and 2015. However, the team's pathetic performances in prim time games and in the playoffs, a seventh playoff loss just may seal his fate.
On a bright note, if Lewis does leave, that would open the door to have every one's favorite coach, Hue Jackson, to take command.
On another bright side, our de facto GM, Duke Tobin, has turned down all job to remain with the Bengals. When Mike Brown finally steps away, many believe Tobin will be the GM outright. He has done an amazing job stockpiling the deepest team in the league. But is that enough to get a playoff win? I wish.