Opinion Sports Columns

Time to Load the Red Rifle

Marshall Hastings

default-featimageSo maybe Tony Romo won’t be the NFL MVP. Kind of tough to do that from the sidelines. But hey, we get some wrong sometimes right? Cut a guy some slack. Regardless, a missed prediction or two isn’t going to stop me from making a brash statement. Which leads me perfectly to Cincinnati.

With the Red Rifle (Andy Dalton in layman’s terms) under center, the Bengals have been the epitome of contradictory. Year-to-year, they put together successful regular seasons only to flop miserably in the postseason. Over the past four seasons, Dalton has tossed for an average of 3,689 yards per season and nearly 25 touchdowns and just over 16 interceptions.

In the playoffs however, the Red Rifle has jammed. With four consecutive first round exits, only one of which was at home, Dalton has thrown for an average of 218 yards per game with just one touchdown and six interceptions combined over all four appearances.

But finally, this year will be different. Dalton and company have always lacked a signature win. In 2012, the Bengals finished the season on a 7-1 run, including wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final two weeks of the season to clinch a postseason berth. The season eventually ended at the hands of the Houston Texans for the second consecutive season on the road, but it was a football team who still kicked off the season 3-6, and those holes showed themselves in a 19-13 loss.

On Sunday, the Bengals got the early season signature win they had lacked, rallying to defeat the two-time defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks in overtime. Dalton erupted for 331 yards passing, completing 30 of 44 passes with a pair of touchdowns and an interception.

Dalton looked, for the first time in his career, like an elite quarterback, finding open receivers and making throws that only the best quarterbacks in the NFL make. Dalton propelled the Bengals from a 17-point deficit against the leagues top defense, finding the end zone through the air, on the ground, and leading a 64-yard drive without a timeout, setting Mike Nugent up for the game-tying field goal as time expired.

These aren’t the same old Bengals. The defense has allowed just 20.2 points per game, good for 10th in the NFL and just one point behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, while allowing opposing offenses to convert on third down 38 percent of the time, tied with Pittsburgh.

As New England continues to steal the headlines as their offense continues to mow through opponents, the Bengals have been just as lethal. The Bengals are averaging 421.4 yards per game, just two yards behind the league-leading Patriots, while averaging the fourth most points per game with 29.6 every Sunday.

The pass offense has been the most destructive. Led by Dalton’s 1,518 (second in the NFL behind Philip Rivers), the Bengals have hit paydirt 11 times through the air, two behind Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers. Cincinnati’s passing attack has account for nearly 39 percent of the teams first downs, the sixth highest mark in the NFL.

Statistics only go so far. The Bengals still face the brunt of their schedule, as they’ve played just one divisional opponent and still have to face the rest of the NFC West and the Denver Broncos, home to three of the league’s elite defenses (Denver, Arizona, St. Louis). But the Bengals are already proving that elite defense won’t slow this offense.

A.J. Green is fourth in the NFL with 495 yards receiving, and his seven receptions of at least 20 yards is just four behind Larry Fitzgerald’s league best 11. On the ground, Giovani Bernard sits at sixth in the NFL with 377 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

The Dallas Cowboys built their dynasty in the 1990’s off a three-headed monster on the offensive side of the ball behind Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. Make no mistake, Cincinnati’s big three are a far cry from Hall of Famers at this point in their careers, but the groundwork for success is identical to that of the Cowboys.

With Bernard proving he is a capable NFL back, defenses are forced to leave A.J. Green in favorable match-ups on the edge, otherwise Bernard will run roughshod through open holes on the front line. And as defenses have to account for Bernard, Green continues to build his brand as an elite pass catcher.

Green may be stealing the spotlight on the edge, but tight end Tyler Eifert is proving he is just as dangerous, ranking fourth among tight ends in both receptions (24) and yards (312), while ranking second among all players with five touchdowns. As Green pulls the defenders away from the interior, Eifert is plugging away on the open holes.

It’s early to start calling shots on teams playoff potential, but the Bengals have built the framework for an offense that has the capability to do damage. As long as Cincinnati can avoid the injury bug that has riddled the Dallas Cowboys, this roster has proven they are capable of claiming the franchises first postseason win since 1990. And with the Red Rifle under center, maybe even further.

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