On a brisk day in the Queen City, January 6th, 1991 proved to be an historic day in Bengals history–for the time being.
Quarterback Boomer Esiason tossed a pair of touchdowns and Ickey Woods did his shuffle as the Bengals dominated the visiting Houston Oilers in the wildcard round of the playoffs. When Cincinnati traveled to California the next week and lost to the Raiders, 20-10, fans didn’t know they would still be waiting for their next glimpse of playoff success–24 years later.
After five trips to the playoffs and five playoff defeats, Cincinnati will once again get a chance to break the NFL’s longest playoff drought. This time, they will take the short trip on I-74 to Indianapolis to take on the AFC South division champion Indianapolis Colts.
When looking at the last three playoff losses, poor quarterback play has highlighted the teams’ defeats. Fourth year quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown just one touchdown and six interceptions in said three games, and will have to improve if Cincinnati has any chance of advancing to the division round of the playoffs.
Standing in their way is the Colts, a team that defeated the Bengals 27-0 in week seven. Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck led the NFL in passing touchdowns with 40 and was third in the NFL in passing yards with 4,761.
In the week seven matchup, Luck threw for 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and was one of five games this season where he didn’t throw an interception. For the Bengals to slow down Luck, they will have to apply pressure.
Sunday Night in Pittsburgh the Bengals didn’t record a single sack or quarterback hit on Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With a league low 20 sacks this season, Cincinnati will have to get pressure on Luck, who is prone to making mistakes.
In his third season, Luck threw 16 interceptions and lost nine fumbles, leading all of the NFL’s quarterbacks with 25 turnovers. The Stanford-Grad threw for over 300 yards ten times in 2014, but only once in the final six games.
Cincinnati is taking a new strategy to winning games, and it has been to run the football–taking it out of Andy Dalton’s hands. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill has turned into the feature back, running for 100 plus yards in each of the last three games, and finishing the season just five yards away from the Bengals’ rookie rushing record.
Hill will be the key to success for the Bengals’ against the Colts’ 18th ranked rush defense. Cincinnati is 4-1 this season when Hill goes for over 100 yards. Since week nine, Hill has rushed for 929 total yards, which is the most in the NFL over that time period.
The Bengals 27-0 loss to the Colts seems like forever ago and was simply a different Bengals team. In that game, Cincinnati only attempted 12 rushes for a mere 32 yards. The Bengals 2.5 yards per play was the fewest this season as they didn’t pick up a first down until the last drive of the first half.
Cincinnati looks to be without pro-bowl wide receiver Aj Green, who was under concussion protocol all week after being knocked out of the week 17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Green didn’t play in the first game against the Colts, a game where Andy Dalton threw for just 126 yards on 18 of 38 passes. Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is listed as questionable, but has also been very good as of late. Gresham caught a touchdown in three of the final four games and has been a reliable red zone target. In fact, Gresham was the only one of the Bengals’ to have a statistically good game in the first meeting with the Colts, catching a team high 10 of his 12 targets for 48 yards.
Running the ball has not been the bread and butter for the Colts this season, ranking 22nd in the NFL on the ground. In the first meeting, Indianapolis rushed the ball 34 times for a season high 174 yards with Trent Richardson leading the ground game with 77 yards. Former Bengal and 2012 draftee Daniel “Boom” Herron has taken over as the Colts’ lead running back, racking up games of 60, 65 and 88 yards in the final six games of the season. Herron also has been good out of the backfield in the receiving game, catching 19 passes for 164 yards in the final six games. He will look to get revenge against a Bengals team that let him go.
One of the big X-factors for the game will be to keep Andy Dalton clean in the pocket. The Colts have three guys: Jonathan Newsome, Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden all have over four sacks this season and will look to come after Dalton who was sacked three times in the first meeting with the Colts, and under countless pressure on his other pass attempts.
Another factor is the turnovers: In their first three playoff games, the Bengals have turned the ball over eight times while only forcing one turnover of their own. This season, the Bengals broke even with a 26:26 turnover ratio, thanks to four Peyton Manning interceptions in week 16.
Overall, this is a chance for the Bengals to exercise the playoff woes that have hit them for 24 years now. A win, and the talk about Andy Dalton in the playoffs go away, the playoff drought will be over, and Marvin Lewis is a part of a post season winning team for the first time since winning a Super Bowl with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as a defensive coach.
A loss, and it’s just the same story just another year.
Cover Photo: Michael Conroy/Associated Press