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Back to the future
WHAT a difference a year makes, eh?
Well, in terms of the Cincinnati Bengals, not much.
This time last year I was waiting around in eager anticipation of a Wildcard weekend clash with the Houston Texans which kicked off on a Saturday at 9.30pm.
This year I am waiting around in eager anticipation of a Wildcard weekend clash with the Houston Texans which kicks off on Saturday at 9.30pm.
The only difference is how we got here and I, along with a few hundred thousand others who call the Bengals their team, am hoping it is big enough to herald a different result.
On November 4 I was in Cincinnati to see the Bengals lose to the Denver Broncos.
It’s the calmest I have ever been watching a Bengals game. At no point did I expect us to win and though the final score of 31-23 was far closer than expected, the result was still the same.
I went back to my hotel, threw my Chad Johnson replica jersey on the bed and headed out for the evening, safe in the knowledge at 3-5 the season could not be saved.
How wrong I was.
The following week the Bengals hammered the then in-form New York Giants, before reeling off six wins in seven games to secure their first back-to-back trip to the play-offs since the 80s.
Had they not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Dallas in week 14, Cincinnati would have been perfect in the second half of the season. As it was, going 7-1 was no mean feat.
True, there may have been mitigating circumstances. A nice run of three straight games against the (Denver aside) hapless AFC West certainly helped matters but I’m not one to worry about how records are earned.
10-6 is 10-6 no matter who you played. There are 20 other teams wishing they were us right now.
What’s been most impressive is the defense. Erratic and unpredictable in the first half of the campaign, they suddenly found their feet against the Giants and since then it’s been a joy to watch Atkins, Dunlap, Johnson et al chase panicky opposing quarterbacks around the backfield.
Less glorious has been the offense, which after good performances against New York, Kansas City and Oakland seemed to hit the buffers after a great opening drive in San Diego.
It’s a big concern. Andy Dalton and co can’t afford to be inconsistent on Saturday, while numerous fingers and toes will be crossed over the fitness of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the next two days too.
But while the Bengals may have plenty of questions, so do the Texans.
Houston only needed to win one of their last two games to secure a bye but lost both, meaning Saturday is a game they may not have expected and almost certainly did not need. Granted these are professional players who theoretically should be able to deal with such a situation. But the human mind is a funny thing and I think heading to Texas represents our best hope this weekend, especially when compared to Denver or New England.
I think the key to the game is the Bengals pass rush getting to Texans quarterback Matt Schaub early. He’s been struggling recently so it’s vital they don’t give him time to get settled and find a rhythm.
On the offensive side of the ball, containing JJ Watt is easier said than done but imperative if the Bengals are to put up serious points.
As for a final prediction, I wouldn’t like to say, though I think it will be close.
But consider this, the Bengals haven’t won a play-off game in more than two decades.
If anyone is due, it’s surely us.
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