Moments before kickoff on Monday night’s broadcast, I encouraged Bengals players, coaches, and fans to close their eyes and imagine they were on Wake Island – a small atoll in the central Pacific Ocean where the local time is 17 hours ahead of Cincinnati.
In other words, when it’s 8:00 at night in Cincinnati, it is 1:00 in the afternoon on Wake Island.
Whatever it takes to fix the Bengals’ prime time woes right?
But Marvin Lewis took a more straight-forward approach with his players.
“I tried to defuse it with them and have them not worry about it,” Lewis told me. “Every opportunity is a new opportunity. So don’t worry about that. This is the game at hand and go win it.”
But it was hard for the players not to worry about it. After losing four straight prime time games and a playoff game by an average of 15 points, it was nearly impossible to tune in to the NFL Network or ESPN without hearing about the Bengals inability to win when the spotlight shines brightest.
Monday’s 37-28 win over Denver has quieted that talk – at least for now.
“That was a huge monkey on our backs and one that we needed to get off,” said Hue Jackson. “The truth of the matter is that we hadn’t done well in those games but it’s not like the guys weren’t competing and trying. It just didn’t happen for them. I would hope last Monday night that we exorcised that demon – not just for the players but for the organization, Mike Brown, the Brown family, and for the city. Peopled watched the Cincinnati Bengals defeat a very talented team on Monday Night Football and I think our players can walk away from that with some confidence as we continue to move forward.”
“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Wallace Gilberry. “That was a playoff environment from snap to finish – the crowd, the weather, the intensity – it was a playoff-type game. So it had a lot of meaning.”
But it wasn’t just winning the game – it was how the Bengals won.
When Andy Dalton’s second pass of the night was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Aqib Talib, the sense of impending doom at Paul Brown Stadium was palpable.
Raise your hand if you were thinking, “Here we go again.”
“We obviously didn’t want the interception to happen, but I talked to the guys the night before the game and said, ‘Whether it goes good or it goes bad, we can’t worry about it. We have to keep playing.’” said Jackson. “After the interception, I think the guys came to the sideline, kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t going to be the same outcome.’ It started with Andy Dalton, Andrew Whitworth, and the rest of the offensive line. Sure enough, on the next play we were able to send a message.”
That play was an 85-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill that tied the score and showed that the Bengals weren’t going to come unglued after an early mistake.
“I think it ignited our team,” said Jackson.
And it established a pattern. Whenever the Broncos made a big play, the Bengals answered.
“To keep coming back and answering every score was just great,” said Lewis. “I’m proud of the players and their resiliency.”
The 85-yard TD was the start of another big night for Hill who has averaged nearly 104 yards a game over the last eight weeks, with three runs of 60 yards or longer.
“Prior to the last season, one of the things that we felt that we needed to be able to do was make more explosive runs to go along with the big plays in the passing game,” said Lewis. “Obviously with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, we’ve been able to find two guys that have that kind of ability.”
Bernard began this season as the Bengals primary ball carrier, but Hill has taken over the role in the last two weeks and rushed for 148 yards against Cleveland and 147 yards against Denver.
“It was a tough call – but a good call – and I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Jackson. “Talking to Coach Lewis, I thought it was the direction that we needed to go. I’m used to having one guy dominate the carries and another guy play. I give kudos to Gio because he didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘Coach, if that’s what’s best for the team in order for us to win, then that’s all I’m interested in.’ That’s says a lot about him because this was his chance and obviously he got injured and things have kind of changed. But at the same time, he knows that he’s going to play and that he’s a very valuable member of this football team. I’m still expecting big things out of him, but Jeremy’s done a great job.”
When Jackson replaced Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator he vowed to make Cincinnati a more effective running team. After rushing for 244 and 207 yards in their last two games, the Bengals have climbed to number five in the NFL in rushing. The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are number one.
“When I took this job I said that this is what we would do – but if you go back and play the tape I never said when we would do it,” said Jackson. “You want to be a balanced football team and be able to thrive by land or by air. We’ve had some of our pass catchers get hurt, we’ve had some inconsistency in our play, and the one thing that I’ve always known you can lean on is the running game. I try to tell people that we’re still building our offense. I knew eventually that this thing would take off. To have 200 yards rushing in back-to-back in the NFL says a lot.”
That will be hard to replicate on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. In the first meeting between the two teams, the Steelers only allowed 86 rushing yards but surrendered 327 passing yards.
“We’re going to go into the game with a great plan – I know that,” said Jackson. “Honestly, if we have to throw it 40 times then we’re going to throw it 40 times. If we have to run it 40 times, then we’ll do that. We just want to win and we’ll do whatever it takes. But we know where it starts. We like to run the football and we’re going to attempt to run the football.”
And when we go on the air this week, I will not be encouraging anybody to imagine being in a different time zone. The Bengals have proven they can beat a good team in prime time. Now they’ll try to do it twice in six days.
“Our guys will be ready to play,” said Lewis. “We just have to handle the emotion of it and play with great poise for 60 minutes. That’s one thing that we have to improve upon from last week. We have to make plays in critical situations and then handle it. Handle success, handle failure, and move on to the next play.”
“This is the game of the year for us so far,” said Gilberry. “You play this sport to have meaningful games in December.”
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