Sidelines with John Clay

Cincinnati Bengals oh so close, but again no cigar

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (5) throws as Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) pursues during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, in Denver.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (5) throws as Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) pursues during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, in Denver. The Associated Press

Even with an 11-4 record, a clinched AFC North Division title and the certainty of a home playoff game, the Cincinnati Bengals have missed a couple of golden opportunities this season. Monday night’s loss at Denver was the second.

The first came last month on Sunday Night Football at Arizona, possibly the best team in the NFC. Down 28-14 heading into the fourth quarter, the Bengals stormed back to tie the game 31-31 on Mike Nugent’s 43-yard field goal with 1:03 remaining.

After that, however, the Cincinnati defense couldn’t stop Arizona’s offense, which marched from its own 16 to the Bengals’ 28 when an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Domata Peko moved the Cards 15 yards closer and Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 32-yard field goal with two seconds left to give the home team a 34-31 victory.

There was a similar scenario on Monday Night Football. After being up 14-0, Cincinnati fell behind the Broncos only to tie the game 17-17 when Nugent, who had missed a 45-yarder late in the first half, drilled a 52-yard field goal with 6:45 left.

After Denver’s Brandon McManus badly shanked a 45-yarder on the final play of regulation, another key penalty hurt the Bengals in overtime.

On second-and-nine from its own 33, Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler hit tight end Virgil Green with a pass on the right sideline for an eight-yard gain. The problem was Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict kept trying to strip the ball from Green even after the play carried Green out of bounds. Burfict was whistled for a personal foul penalty moving the ball inside Bengals’ territory at the 44. True, Denver probably would have picked up a first down on a second-and-one play, but Burfict’s play was unnecessary.

You know what happened from there, Osweiler moved Denver to the 19 where McManus kicked a 37-yard field goal. Two plays after Cincinnati got the ball back, quarterback AJ McCarron dropped a shotgun snap. Denver recovered. Broncos won 20-17.

The loss probably knocks Cincinnati out of a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. The top two seeds get to sit out the Wild Card round. New England is the current top seed at 12-3. Cincinnati and Denver are both at 11-4, but the Broncos now have the upper hand with a head-to-head win. The Bengals finish with visiting Baltimore on Sunday. Denver plays host to San Diego.

As for McCarron, starting in place of the injured Andy Dalton, the former Alabama quarterback had a lights-out first half. He completed 12 of 17 passes and spearheaded an offense that converted seven of eight third downs against the top-rated defense in the NFL.

Whether Nugent’s miss before halftime robbed the Bengals of momentum or not, the second half was a different story. The Bengals punted on five of their six possessions. After drives of 15, 13 and 10 plays in the first half, Cincinnati had just one drive longer than six plays in the second half.

Not that this was all McCarron’s fault. A holding penalty on Andrew Whitworth killed the Bengals’ first drive of the second half. Denver’s run defense stiffened as well. Cincinnati had five different running plays stopped for no gain in the third quarter alone.

Then in the fourth quarter, on the Bengals’ best second-half possession, wide receiver A.J. Green inexplicably stopped running on a deep route. When Green realized the ball was coming his way, the All-Pro sped up but couldn’t quite make it to McCarron’s pass in the end zone. A TD there would have given Cincinnati a 21-17 lead with seven minutes left and forced Denver to score a touchdown to win.

Overall, McCarron completed 22 of 35 passes for 200 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating of 87.8 was decent enough but didn’t match Osweiler’s 100.3.

According to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, McCarron took the blame for the dropped snap on the game’s final play. “I felt like I let my team down,” said McCarron, who added that he injured his left wrist (though not seriously) on the play. “My fault. I told the guys that after the game.”

Not having a first-round bye means less time for Dalton’s broken left hand to heal. If the Bengals do play host to a Wild Card game the weekend of Jan. 9-10, looks like McCarron would be the likely starter. That’s provided his wrist is ok.

Cincinnati Bengals 2015

9/13

@Oakland

33

13

W

1-0

9/20

San Diego

24

19

W

2-0

9/27

@Baltimore

28

24

W

3-0

10/4

Kansas City

36

21

W

4-0

10/11

Seattle

27

24

W

5-0

10/18

@Buffalo

34

21

W

6-0

10/25

bye

11/1

@Pittsburgh

16

10

W

7-0

11/5

Cleveland

31

10

W

8-0

11/16

Houston

6

10

L

8-1

11/22

@Arizona

31

34

L

8-2

11/29

St. Louis

31

7

W

9-2

12/6

@Cleveland

37

3

W

10-2

12/13

Pittsburgh

20

33

L

10-3

12/20

@San Fran

24

14

W

11-3

12/28

@Denver

17

20

L

11-4

1/3

Baltimore

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