As Bengals players and coaches watch Super Bowl LI, the desire to be in the game will be high. But, was the 2015 squad their best chance?
It’s hard to look past the Bengals’ disappointing 2016 season. When the year started, it was filled with the promise of putting anger away and getting down to the business of winning the division. Unfortunately, the run for another AFC North crown was crushed by injury and bad timing. As wideout A.J. Green puts it, the 2015 squad may have been the team to win it all.
As any true Bengals fan remembers, that was the year of the streak. To open the 2015 campaign, the Bengals steamrolled their competition and posted an 8-0 record to waltz into Week 9. Their luck changed, when the offense finally sputtered against the Houston Texans at Paul Brown Stadium. The Texans exercised their reign as Cincinnati’s nemesis with a 10-6 win. As usual, the Bengals defense was stellar and had only one major breakdown. Adam Jones was burned on a 22-yard TD pass from T.J. Yates to DeAndre Hopkins.
The Bengals defense allowed just one touchdown. But, that was the game clincher. Looking back, if Cincinnati wins that game…they have a first round bye. But, the football gods weren’t feeling it that night. The primetime bug struck again.
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Bengals fans would witness the team go on to notch a 12-4 record and tie the 1981 team for most W’s in a season. But, there still should have been more to come. Instead, it all ended on a rainy January night. The infamous Wild Card Game that snuffed out the Bengals hope at a playoff run.
"“When we lost to the Steelers, that has to be the worst loss I have ever experienced in my life,” Green said, per Bengals.com. “The feeling was like, it was over, because I felt like that team right there was THE team.”"
The “What If’s”
As the Atlanta Falcons prepare to tangle with the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, it’s easy to imagine the Bengals in the Big Dance. With just a few more breaks, fans would have been viewing an all cats Bowl. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers mauled their way through the competition and would have been a more than worthy opponent. Newton and Andy Dalton were both in the talented draft class of 2011. Their career paths had gotten them both in the running for the league’s MVP honors.
If Dalton doesn’t try to tackle a 300-pound lineman, he never breaks his thumb. Even if the Bengals don’t win the Week 14 battle with the Steelers, he’s still around for the playoffs.
In addition to the loss against the Texans, there was the heartbreaking loss to Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals. Winning either of those games puts the Bengals in the driver’s seat as the AFC’s #1 seed.
What if Marvin Lewis uses that keen eye for talent and starts Rex Burkhead? Suddenly, the 2015 Bengals would have had the two-headed monster of most Super Bowl teams. Dalton was on pace to pass for over 4,000 yards and at least 30 TD’s. Combine that with the passion of Burkhead’s running and things could be totally different. Giovani Bernard and Rex would have been a sight to see. Speed, more speed and power in the backfield would have been a welcomed matchup problem.
It Can Still Happen
As the Bengals chill and watch the Super Bowl with the rest of America, chances are they’re thinking. Players and coaches are pondering how the Falcons made it to the NFL Championship Game and they didn’t. Of course, the formula to fix it all is being tossed about. But, the pain is still foremost in their thought process.
"“I felt like 15 was such a good year for us,” Dalton remembered. “Both all the guys we had and the way everyone was playing. It’s unfortunate it had to end the way it did getting injured. The Falcons are playing at a high level. They’re playing their best football they have been playing and this is the right time to do that.”"
Certainly, the disbelief is still there. But, the odds are good that the Bengals will be back in contention for 2017. Under Lewis’ watch, the Bengals have had only three losing seasons. With the exception of 2007, the Bengals have always snapped back with a playoff appearance. The building blocks are still there. It’s time for coaches to get players up to speed on what needs to be done.
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan had a phenomenal year. Dalton’s numbers were similar, in 2015, and could have been closer. But, close ain’t gonna get it. Ken Zampese and the offense have work to do. Paul Guenther’s defense has to…Rise Up. If the Falcons can do it, Bengals fans should expect more.