One can’t say the 2016 season was the highest of highs, but there were some golden moments. For the first time since 2010, the Cincinnati Bengals failed to make the postseason, suffering just their fourth losing campaign since 2003.
But this piece won’t focus on the nine losses. Instead, it will highlight the Bengals’ highs as a team in 2016 as well as noteworthy individual performances.
Thriller in the Big Apple– Okay, so the Jets don’t really play home games in New York, but it’s still the name on their title.
The Bengals season got off on the right foot when they paid a week-one visit to MetLife Stadium. A.J Green setup a temporary four-hour trip to ‘Revis Island’ and enjoyed his stay. He torched seven-time Pro-Bowl corner Darrelle Revis for a 54-yard touchdown early in the second quarter and ended the day with 12 catches for 180 yards.
After a pair of Nick Folk chip-shot field goals gave the Jets a 22-20 lead, the Bengals’ offense took the field at their own 16 with 3:18 left in the game. Part of a 366-yard afternoon, Andy Dalton completed all four of his pass attempts on the ensuing drive to setup Mike Nugent‘s (a former second-round pick by the Jets in 2005) go-ahead, 47-yarder to put Cincinnati in front, 23-22.
Three plays later, second-year defensive back Josh Shaw picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick to clinch the Bengals’ third consecutive season-opening victory and first road win over Gang Green since 1981.
Defense, Green dominate on primetime– Prior to hosting the Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football in late September, the last time the Bengals played on national television was their postseason collapse against Pittsburgh eight months earlier, easily the lowest moment in the calendar year.
After a 1-2 start to the season, the Bengals faced an early must-win situation when Miami came to PBS. It didn’t start too well, though.
On the Dolphins’ second offensive snap, Ryan Tannehill threw a 74-yard touchdown to Kenny Stills to give Miami a 7-3 lead. However, the Bengals’ defense recovered after the blown coverage, giving up just 148 yards on the Dolphins’ final 48 plays of the game.
Pro-Bowlers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins led a defensive line that sacked Tannehill five times and Chris Lewis-Harris sealed the game with his first career interception with five minutes left.
Offensively, it was another clinic for Green. Later in the first quarter, he won a 51-yard jump ball over Dolphins’ rookie corner Xavien Howard. Four plays later, he capped the drive off with a seven-yard touchdown.
It was the only time the Bengals would find the end zone in the win. Nugent was the difference, converting on all five of his field goal tries to pass Doug Pelfrey for third on the team’s all-time scoring list.
For a fifth consecutive season, Dalton won a primetime game, posting 296 passing yards and a 111.8 passer rating.
Historic day in Battle of Ohio — A two-game losing streak followed the win over Miami, and the Bengals were ready to turn the ship around when the winless Cleveland Browns came to town in late October.
The defense struggled as rookie quarterback Kevin Hogan ran for 104 yards with an option attack, but they forced two interceptions and three punts on Cleveland’s final five drives.
The day belonged to the offense, racking up 559 total yards, the team’s highest total since 1991.
Jeremy Hill needed only nine carries to tally 168 rushing yards. His 74-yard touchdown run with less than 10 minutes left gave Cincinnati an 11-point lead.
Dalton completed 19 of 28 for 308 yards and two touchdowns, and his most exciting throw was a 48-yard Hail Mary that was tipped and snagged by Green in the end zone as time expired in the first half.
A.J Green– Green’s best plays have already been highlighted thus far, but there’s still some to be said.
Prior to his season-ending hamstring injury, Green was on pace for a franchise-best 117 receptions and 1,713 yards, although the Bengals had new receivers surrounding him and Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert was absent through the first six weeks.
One week after his second Hail Mary touchdown of his career, he scorched Redskins‘ first-team, All-pro corner Josh Norman for nine receptions and 121 yards at Wembley Stadium, also drawing five penalties on Washington’s prized free-agent acquisition.
Two weeks later, in a return to MetLife Stadium, Green caught career touchdown no. 49 as he and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 17 receptions, 165 yards and a pair of scores for a Monday Night Football audience.
Dalton and the newcomers— Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu departed in March, leaving Andy Dalton with rookie Tyler Boyd and first-year Bengal Brandon LaFell to compliment Green in the receiving corps.
Boyd, a second-rounder from Pittsburgh, turned into a reliable slot receiver. He posted a 9.8-yard average on his 22 third-down catches, the most in the NFL by any rookie. After a controversial fumble in his week-two homecoming in the Steel City and a crucial goal-line drop against the Giants that adds to the “what is a catch?” debate, Boyd finally found the end zone in a loss to Buffalo on November 20th.
Three weeks later, Boyd had a career-high 89 all-purpose yards in a 23-10 win over Cleveland that included a 39-yard run, the longest by a Bengal receiver since Peter Warrick‘s 77-yard touchdown run in 2000 against Denver, the same day Corey Dillon broke the NFL’s single-game rushing record.
LaFell, who was charged with six drops in his 2015 debut with New England, turned into a productive no. 2 wide out. In his first game in stripes, he hauled in four receptions for 91 yards against the Jets. He finished the year by posting his second-highest career totals in catches (64), yards (862), and touchdowns (six).
His 86-yard touchdown reception in a Christmas Eve loss to Houston was the longest by a Bengal since Darnay Scott‘s 88-yarder against Seattle in 1995.
While the Bengals were cleaning out their lockers after week 17, LaFell was receiving a check. With eight receptions for 67 yards in the season-finale, he reached the 60-catch, 800-yard incentives from the one-year deal he signed in March to collect an extra $500,000. Not too shabby for a belated Christmas gift.
Dalton’s first losing season ended with a silver lining. Marvin Lewis called 2016 Dalton’s “best” and the numbers concur. He eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark for the second time in his six-year career, only the second Bengal (Carson Palmer) to hit 4k in multiple seasons. His eight interceptions were a single-season low for any quarterback in franchise history to start all 14 (pre-1978) or 16 games.
Dalton did fall short of a couple milestone, though, ending the year just 10 completions and 88 yards shy of single-season franchise records in both categories.
Burkhead takes advantage — Running back Rex Burkhead touched the rock just 30 times in his first three professional seasons, but he defined the “next man up” phrase for the entire 2016 season.
First on special teams, where Burkhead led the unit in tackles after taking the place of Pro-Bowl punt protector and coverage specialist Cedric Peerman after he broke his forearm in the third preseason game.
Then in the backfield, where he filled in after Giovani Bernard‘s season-ending knee injury and Hill’s nagging injuries that caused him to miss his first career game. Against Houston in week 16, Burkhead had a pair of nine-yard runs to help set up a game-winning field goal attempt at the gun that Randy Bullock pushed wide right.
With Hill out in the season-finale against the Ravens, Burkhead got his first start and made his case for a new contract when he hits free agency in March.
On 27 carries against Baltimore’s AFC-best rushing defense, Burkhead notched his first 100-yard game in the pros, exactly four years to the date of his last 100-yard performance, a 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day 2013 where he totaled 179 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in just his third game back from a sprained knee that sidelined him for five contests during his final season at Nebraska.
Burkhead opened and capped off the game’s scoring with a pair of five-yard touchdown runs, becoming the first Bengal since Cedric Benson in ’09 to gash the Ravens for triple digits on the ground.
Erickson wins kick-return crown — Fan favorite Alex Erickson won a spot on the 53-man roster after having a knack for the end zone in the preseason.
Despite a shaky start in the return game, Erickson turned it on in the second half, becoming the first Bengal to have three kick returns of 65-plus yards in one season.
The undrafted rookie led the NFL with 810 kick return yards, but his 27.9-yard average finished second in the league behind explosive Minnesota returner Cordarrelle Paterson (31.7).
Thankfully, the Jaguars’ Marquise Lee was not returning kicks in week 17, meaning Erickson would win the AFC’s kick-return crown because Lee did not have enough total returns to qualify (he needed two more).
Brandon Tate, who was cut by Cincinnati after five seasons, finished second in the race with a 22.8-yard average with the Buffalo Bills.