By now you know I’m a shameless, unapologetic, appalling homer.
My blood type is black & gold. I was weaned on Mean Joe Greene. I still have an original Terrible Towel from 1978, when the Steelers had half of their six Super Bowls. I still speak in the collective — “We” won yesterday — and that helmet with odd one logo on one side is the only one that still drains my adrenal gland.
But this year had none of those Super Feelings. Their defense was, well, awful. Big Ben spent too much time on the trainer’s table. Then Le’Veon Bell, the best running back in the NFL, blew out his knee.
But it was that injury, when Bell writhed in agony on the sideline, as Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict taunted him, that seemed to give the Steelers ample incentive to return the favor against Cincinnati, at Cincinnati, with an expected coronation wafting through the stands, in the daunting “Jungle” the jungle cats call home.
Then, of course, Andy Dalton broke his right thumb while tackling a Steeler who just picked of his pass. The severity of the break is in question, but not the severity of the season if he’s out for the rest of it.
Dalton is seeing a hand specialist as I write this, but suffice to say it’s a solemn day in the Queen City.
Nearly all pundits agreed that the Bengals (10-3) had the best roster in the NFL. And this was finally the portal through which they would stroll to the Super Bowl. Beyond their historical penchant for losing big games in January, they were a walking triage last year, losing to the Colts without A.J. Green or Tyler Eifert, among a forest of mangled limbs.
Eifert was leading the world in TD catches, and could return in a week from a concussion. Green still shredded the Steelers, sans Dalton. And Geno Atkins is back to his Pro Bowl form. They also have one of the more potent and versatile RB tandems in the game, with Jeremy HIll and Giovanni Bernard.
But no roster can compensate for losing their starting QB. Dalton was enjoying his best year as a pro quarterback. No amalgam of pass blockers, pass rushers or running game can cloak A.J. McCarron. No matter the nascent QB’s ascent to the starting job, no matter how skilled the skill players are around him, the Bengals cannot win with McCarron… without Dalton.
This throws the Bengals into the blender of AFC contention, a shell game that changes every week. Heading into yesterday, the Bengals (10-3) and Broncos (10-3) had a chokehold on home-field advantage. The Broncos had the tiebreaker over the Patriots by dint of their overtime win over the Pats, while the Bengals are scheduled to play Denver this month.
Yet in one afternoon, they both plunged down the AFC totem pole. That’s how fickle the fortunes of pro football can be. Now it’s New England (11-2), presumed a second or third seed just six days ago, in the catbird’s seat.
And Cincinnati, who had it all lined up, from health to home-field advantage, is now looking like the outsider peering in, perpetuating the notion that this is their ancestral perch — outsiders, always good enough to get there but never good enough to get past there.
In the absence of a super team, in a year when the Carolina Panthers are running the table, in a year when Cam Newton, of all QBs, is playing out of his mind, these were the perfect climes to climb up the rungs of relevance. The map could not have been drawn any better for the Bengals, who have more talent and roster depth than anyone.
And yet, with one misguided tackle — Dalton should never had lunged toward the legs of a 300-pound man — the Bengals are one doctor diagnosis from falling off the NFL map.
Sure, they’ll still reach the playoffs — 10-3 will do that. Not to mention they have a game, at home, against the wretched 49ers, this weekend. But then they travel to Denver to play an ornery Broncos defense that will be even more amped to win, particularly if they lose this weekend at Pittsburgh — a distinct possibility with Brock Osweiler under center.
Maybe the Bengals get some great news. Maybe Dalton, who will surely miss the remaining three games of the regular-season, will return just in time to lead his club down the thorny, playoff portal. If anyone could use a change of luck, it’s Cincinnati.
If anyone could use a break, it’s the Bengals. Just not the kind of break they got yesterday.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.