Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 1990, roughly 40% of the teams that started the season 5-0 advanced to the Super Bowl.
Yeah, yeah, I know…let’s see the Bengals win one playoff game before we start talking about getting to Santa Clara in February. But if you’re 5-0 and able to rally from 17 points down in the fourth quarter against the “Legion of Boom”, you are capable of making a Super Bowl run.
What stood out to me after Sunday’s remarkable come-from-behind win over Seattle was the sheer number of players that were worthy of receiving game balls. Such as…
With a legendary #85 in attendance – Chad Johnson – the current Bengals player in that uniform number had 8 catches for 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Additionally, his diving fingertip catch with 1:20 left in regulation to help set up Mike Nugent’s game-tying field goal was simply sensational.
“I call him a ‘Gronk,’” said A.J. Green. “He’s Gronk material. He’s a top three tight end in this league man and we’re just happy to have him back.”
Green’s comment brings to mind a recent conversation with long-time NFL coach Al Saunders who worked with the Bengals as an offensive assistant coach during training camp.
“I’ve had the great pleasure of being around probably some of the best tight ends to ever play the game,” said Saunders. “My first job in the NFL was with the San Diego Chargers and we had a guy by the name of Kellen Winslow Sr. who was a pretty good player at that position. Then I had Tony Gonzalez for 10 years and Todd Heap in Baltimore and Chris Cooley in Washington. That’s four Pro Bowl guys and two of them are arguably the best to ever play the position.
“(Eifert) has all of the characteristics to be the type of tight end that gives you a significant advantage as a match-up because he can run, he can catch the football, and he can catch it down the field. He has a great knack of tracking the football and he can block sufficiently. I think as he matures and grows, I think you’ll find that if he’s not one of the three best tight ends in the National Football League, he’ll be a premier player and a perennial Pro Bowl player. He gives you the ability to attack the middle of the field and to attack it vertically against safeties and linebackers which is a tremendous advantage for the passing game.”
The 32-year-old was limited at practice during the week due to a groin injury and was not expected to return punts. But after the Bengals fell behind 24-7 in the third quarter, Jones informed the coaching staff that he felt good enough to give it a try.
His 33-yard return helped ignite the comeback in the fourth quarter, and a 19-yard return put the Bengals in good field position to start the game-winning drive in overtime.
After the game, Hue Jackson gave Jones a bear hug and told him that he was the toughest player pound-for-pound in the NFL.
“As the game kept going, my groin warmed up and I felt pretty comfortable,” said Jones. “It worked out today man. Coach Lewis did a good job of telling me when I can go in and when I can’t, and we’re literally over there fighting every time the ball is kicked.
“I just love the game and I play with passion. I was kind of ticked off out there when it was 24-7 and I called everybody up and said, ‘Look. No matter what happens, just keep playing.’ It worked out for us.”
The veteran kicker missed a PAT or a field goal in three of the first four games, but Nugent made all five of his kicks on Sunday including his eighth career game-winning field goal from 42 yards out in overtime – albeit off the left upright.
“It was one of those ones where I kept my head down forever,” said Nugent. “Just keep your head down and the crowd will tell you if it goes in. I happened to peek up right when it hit the upright.
“I’ve had very patient teammates and coaches the last couple of weeks, so I’m very lucky to be able to have that opportunity.”
But there was nothing lucky about the field goal that forced overtime.
With 17 seconds on the clock and no time outs remaining, Andy Dalton was tackled from behind at Seattle’s 13 yard line. It took just 13 seconds for the Bengals to run a field goal “fire drill” and get lined up in time for Nugent to drill a 31-yard kick.
“We have never done that in our six years together here, but we work on it a good amount in training camp and practice so it was almost second nature,” Nugent told me. “Everybody did a great job because it’s tough to get the lineman aligned and get everybody out there. I’ve got to give some credit to the refs. They spotted the ball right away so I actually had a decent amount of time to take my steps.”
The sixth year defensive end finished with six quarterback hits and 1 ½ sacks including a shared sack with Emmanuel Lamur on Seattle’s final offensive play in overtime.
After Seattle took a 17-point lead with 6:41 left in the third quarter, the Bengals defense forced the Seahawks to punt on their final six possessions.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but you just have to control what you can,” said Dunlap. “Just win the next series. That’s all (the defense) can do. I can’t go out there and catch the ball. I mean, I could, but I’m not on that side. So I’m going to control what I can on my side and that’s sacks, hits, and pressures on Russell Wilson.”
Dunlap has five sacks after five games and the Bengals have 15 as a team. They need just five to equal their total from last season.
In the fourth quarter this year, Dalton is 22-for-29 for 347 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 154.7. A perfect score is 158.3.
And the comeback that he engineered on Sunday was against the NFL’s stingiest defense. In the last three years, Seattle has led the league in points allowed by surrendering 15.3, 14.4, and 15.9 points a game. The Bengals turned the Seahawks into the “Legion of Gloom” by scoring 17 in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the most talented group of rushers and defense that we’ve ever faced,” said Andrew Whitworth. “They’ve got guys everywhere that are good.
“Being able to overcome what we did against that kind of talent is a heck of a message.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who called the game for Fox-TV on Sunday, told us on the “Bengals Pep Rally” show this week that he’s been highly impressed with Dalton this season.
“It takes a few years before you are really able to settle in and that’s what I see in Andy,” said Aikman. “Now that he’s in his fifth season, he’s been hardened a little bit, he’s been knocked around some, he’s had some really fine games, and he’s had some disappointments.
“The Bengals probably take more shots down the field than any team we’ve seen this year. You see a lot of horizontal passing teams, but they’ve been able to take advantage of some of the skill position players that they have and Andy has put the ball on the money when he’s had opportunities. I’ve been really impressed with the way he’s played.”
I suspect Aikman’s opinion of Dalton is even more favorable after what he witnessed first-hand on Sunday.
So now it’s on to Buffalo and a chance to equal the best start in franchise history as the Bengals started 6-0 in 1975 and 1988.
“We’re worked really hard to be where we’re at and for us, we’re trying to get to 6-0,” said Dalton. “Each week’s important and we’ve put ourselves in a really good position to start this week off.”
“No matter where we are right now, if we don’t finish, the start won’t be remembered,” said Dunlap. “We’ll be remembered for how we finish.”
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