The bus ride from the stadium to the airport felt like a funeral procession. The players and coaches were clearly wondering what had just happened and appeared to be both depressed and stunned.
But I’m not talking about the bus ride following Saturday’s playoff loss to the Texans. I’m talking about the ride to the Detroit airport after the preseason opener against the Lions.
Remember Detroit 34 Cincinnati 3? Were you thinking 9-7 and a playoff berth?
Let’s face it: The 2011 Bengals topped everybody’s exceptions but their own.
“I don’t see this as exceeding expectations,” said Andy Dalton. “I felt like we could get here and we have to do the same thing going into next year. There’s a lot of motivation and a lot of good things to take away from the season. We just have to keep getting better.”
Saturday’s 31-10 loss in Houston was bitterly disappointing because the Bengals proved four weeks ago that they are capable of beating the Texans. Cincinnati led the rematch for much of the first half before defensive end J.J. Watt’s interception and 29 yard touchdown return gave Houston its first lead.
“I’m sure he was just trying to bat it down,” said Chris Crocker. “It was one of those plays where you just say, ‘Wow.’ You can’t plan something like that.”
“That interception and touchdown was a big play,” said Rey Maualuga. “That hurt us, but you’re supposed to be able to come back in the second half and stop them.”
The Bengals forced a punt on Houston’s first drive of the third quarter, and Crocker nearly had an interception on the Texans’ second drive. But two plays after that missed opportunity, T.J. Yates threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson that gave the Texans a commanding14-point lead.
“I know it’s a different ball game if I catch that pass right there,” said Crocker. “I had a huge opportunity and I just didn’t make the play. I’ll still hold my head up and my teammates will. We played a lot of good football this year, but you remember what you did last, and I’ll think about this for the rest of the off-season.”
It’s an off-season that promises to be eventful for Cincinnati. With an extra first round draft pick and salary cap flexibility, the Bengals have a unique opportunity to add to their talented young nucleus.
“I’m excited about the upside of this team,” said Nate Clements. “I’m hurting right now, but looking at the big picture, I’m excited about what’s to come.”
“There’s a lot of promise on this team and a lot to look forward to,” said Crocker. “Now you move forward. You figure out what you’re going to do in the off-season and get better. The future does look bright.”
“Hopefully we can build off of this year – I know we will,” said Maualuga. “We’re going to get back to the playoffs and we’re going to win some games.”
But much like that preseason bus ride in Detroit, the Bengals were not savoring their promising future after Saturday’s loss. They were lamenting that this season’s surprising playoff run is over.
“We made the playoffs and that was our first team goal, but we didn’t get over the hump this year,” said A.J. Green. “We had an OK season, but we have a lot of work to do.”
“The anticipation leading up to the game was such an emotional high and to not pull it out stings right now,” said Clements. “It’s definitely a learning experience.”
“That’s the hardest thing about losing a playoff game – the season is done,” said Crocker. “You go from preparing for your next opponent each week and we all had plans to keep moving on. That didn’t happen. It’s not easy to get to the playoffs and I realize that. This isn’t guaranteed. It’s tough to get here so you want to make the most of it.”
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