CINCINNATI – Bengals fans: Did you wake up this morning and discover that somebody had egged your car and toilet-papered your house and trees?
No? But I bet you felt like it.
After treating you to four straight wins, even raising your hopes for a Super Bowl run, the Bengals pulled a mean Halloween trick on you, didn’t they?
They bungled a game they should have won (Did Dave Shula sneak back onto the sidelines?) But it was much worse than that.
They lost the team’s best defensive player, Geno Atkins, to a torn ACL. And Andy Dalton’s Dr. Jekyll side re-emerged in Thursday’s 22-20 overtime loss to the Dolphins.
Put together, that shattered the euphoria of a four-game winning streak that had fans talking Super Bowl and cast a shadow on the rest of the season.
Suddenly, the Bengals are only one game ahead of the Ravens in the loss column in the AFC North standings.
Losing Atkins, an All-Pro pass rusher, is a bad blow for a defense already weakened by the loss of its best cornerback, Leon Hall, for the year with a torn Achilles tendon. It was clear Thursday night that no one left in the Bengals secondary can cover anyone – much less Mike Wallace - one on one. (Especially you, Adam Jones).
After looking like Superman for the past three games, Dalton looked like someone had stuffed Kryptonite in his shoulder pads. He not only threw two bad interceptions (one turned into a pick six, the other into a field goal at the end of the first half), he forgot where he was on the last play and gave up a walk-off safety.
C’mon, even a high school QB doesn’t get sacked in the end zone in overtime!
The oddsmakers foresaw a poor effort and the Bengals’ bubble bursting even if the fans didn’t. They only had to look back to the halfhearted loss to the Browns after a thrilling win over the Packers – or the close call against the Bills after beating the Patriots – to see that this team doesn’t know how to get up for every game.
That’s why the Bengals, on a four-game winning streak following a 49-9 crushing of the Jets, were just 2½-point favorites over a team on a four-game losing streak.
The NFL Network announcer said the Bengals “played soft” and he was being kind.
The offense went from a 28-point first half against the Jets to a 3-point first half against the Dolphins.
Fortunately, the Bengals let rookie running back Giovani Bernard twist and shake them back into the game with two second-half touchdowns before going out with bruised ribs.
Bernard’s electrifying 35-yard scoring run looked like someone had drawn it with their finger in the dirt on a sandlot field:
Go right, dodge a few defenders, go left across the field, dodge a few more, weave up the sideline, go right, stumble at the 5 and do a backflip into the end zone.
If you didn’t see it, think of the horn on a Rams helmet. That’s the direction Bernard took.
Throwing a block on that play was the best thing Dalton did all night.
Dalton, who had five TD passes and one pick last week, had three picks and no TD passes Thursday and lost a fumble. But he didn’t lose this game himself. He had plenty of help.
A.J. Green had two drops, and Mohamed Sanu, playing hurt and making some fine catches, had two costly drops – one that was intercepted at the Dolphins 14 and one that would have put the Bengals in field-goal range in OT.
Dalton was sacked five times – three by Cameron Wake, who got him in OT.
After Mike Nugent kicked a 54-yard field with 1:24 left in regulation to put the Bengals ahead, the Bengals defense went into a deep sleep, presumably thinking what they thought in the fourth quarter at Buffalo:
This game is over.
It wasn’t. The Dolphins drove 50 yards (even converting a second-and-17) and Caleb Sturgis made a 44-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to force overtime.
Let’s talk about the coaching here, because Marvin Lewis had a chance to win the game on the Bengals’ first possession but decided not to let Nugent try a 56-yard field goal.
OK, Lewis didn’t want to give the Dolphins good field position if Nugent missed. But Nugent had just kicked a 54-yarder that probably had enough distance to go 60.
That’s not playing to win, that’s playing to not lose.
For that matter, the Bengals could have played for field goal position when they had first down at the Miami 41. A first-down run got 2 yards, but Dalton then proceeded to throw two incompletions. Why not run again – at least on second down?
Anyway, the Bengals punted and Terence Newman got so burned by Wallace on a fly pattern he had to dive and tackle Wallace at the ankles before the pass got there. The 38-yard penalty essentially negated the punt. The defense held, but the Dolphins’ punt buried the Bengals at the 8, leading to the safety.
So what now? Trick or treat?
How will the Bengals (6-3) respond
without Atkins? How will Dalton respond?
It won’t take long to find out. They go to Baltimore next to play the Super Bowl champs on Nov. 10. Figure the Ravens (3-4) will beat the Browns this week.
If anybody can stop the Bengals from winning the division, it’s the Ravens.
The Bengals have an advantage because the Ravens have a tougher second-half schedule. They have to go on the road to play the Bears and Lions and host the Patriots.
The only winning teams left on the Bengals' schedule are the Colts and at the Chargers. But they still have four division games left – one with the Browns and Steelers, and two with the Ravens.
If the Bengals lose at Baltimore, it's not hard to imagine the division championship going down to the final Sunday Dec. 29 when the Ravens play at Paul Brown Stadium.
No more tricks, please.