While mathematically still alive for the playoffs, the reality of the situation is that today’s game against the Chicago Bears will be more of a test of will and pride than X’s and O’s for the Cincinnati Bengals.
And more often than not, the Bengals have passed those types of tests when they’ve been presented with them under head coach Marvin Lewis.
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In the previous 10 seasons, the Bengals have failed to make the playoffs four times. But in those years that went south, Lewis’ teams have played hard until the end, compiling a record of 11-8 in games played in December and January.
They failed their first December test this year, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-20 on Monday, but no one would suggest a lack of effort or desire were present in that game.
In addition to players competing for their jobs, Lewis will be coaching for his, assuming of course that owner and team president Mike Brown already hasn’t made up his mind.
Here are five things to watch Sunday when the Bengals battle the Bears:
The Bengals finally have their run game going after spending four weeks ranked 32nd in rush offense, putting up their two highest totals of the season the last two weeks (152 vs. Cleveland and 130 vs. Pittsburgh).
But if they’re going to keep that going, they will have to do it without starting running back Joe Mixon, who suffered a concussion against the Steelers and will not play against the Bears.
That leaves Giovani Bernard and Brian Hill, an undrafted rookie the Bengals signed off the Atlanta practice squad last month, as the only healthy running backs.
Bernard has logged more than 15 rushes just six times in his five-year career, while Hill’s next carry will be the first of his career.
The Bengals were penalized 13 times for 173 yards Monday night against the Steelers. The yards were a franchise record, and the 13 flags equaled the teams most since 2005.
Part of that can be attributed to the referees calling a tighter game in an attempt to keep things from getting out of hand between the bitter rivals. But it’s not as though the rash of flags was an aberration this season.
The Bengals rank ninth in penalties (87) and fourth in penalty yardage (808) this season.
The three most penalized game prior to Monday all were followed by a substantial reduction:
Nov. 10, 2013 – 9 penalties for 134, followed by 8 for 64
Oct. 1, 1978 – 13 for 133, followed by 5 for 40
Nov. 1, 1987 – 15 for 132, followed by 3 for 35
They’ll be looking for a similar correction against Bears.
Rookie running back Tarik Cohen leads the Bears in receptions (39) and is second in receiving yards (306), but he is most dangerous in the return game.
Nicknamed “The Human Joystick,” Cohen ranks ninth among qualifying players in punt returns (10.1 yards), including a 61-yard touchdown last week against San Francisco. And he ranks 11th in kick returns (23.1).
Bears at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
“He’s a fantastic, exciting little player,” Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said of the 5-foot-6, 179-pound Cohen. “He’s really come on the scene hot. He’s a little guy who obviously has great running instinct.
“He’s short and small, but he runs very strong. He runs deceptively strong,” Simmons added. “I’d say (Darren Sproles) is a good analogy.”
Cohen will be an especially difficult task Sunday because the Bengals special teams will have a lot of new players and/or guys in new positions due to the rash of injuries that has hit the team at linebacker and in the secondary.
After signing with the Bears on Monday, Centerville native and Ohio State product Mike Nugent will be back at Paul Brown Stadium, where he spent 10 seasons becoming the third leading scorer in franchise history while setting the single-season mark of 132 points in 2011.
Nugent’s return comes three days shy of the one-year anniversary of his release from the Bengals after a year-long struggle that saw him miss kicks in his final four games and five of six, finishing 23 of 29 on field goals and 23 of 29 on extra points.
Nugent spent the preseason with the New York Giants, going 5 of 5 on field goals but losing the job to rookie Aldrick Ross. Nugent signed with Dallas in October and hit 7 of 9 field goals and 8 of 8 on extra points while filling in for the injured Dan Bailey.
“I’m elated for him that’s gotten some chances,” Simmons said. “He’s somebody who has worked his tail off for a long time. I stayed in contact with him throughout this whole ordeal and kept encouraging him, not that he needs encouragement, but I did keep telling him to press on and find a way to get out of the rut that he was in a little bit last year. It’s good to see others have believed in him, too, as much as I believe in him.”
The Bengals have not committed a turnover in the last three games and can tie the franchise record of four straight against the Bears.
The 1998 team did not turn the ball over in Games 2-5, which featured a 34-28 overtime win at Detroit, a 13-6 home loss to Green Bay, a 31-24 loss at Baltimore and a 25-20 victory against Pittsburgh.
This is only the third time in franchise history the Bengals have gone three consecutive games without a turnover. They also did it in Games 4-6 last year (22-7 win vs. Miami, 28-14 loss at Dallas, 35-17 loss at New England).
The biggest part of the run has been the play of quarterback Andy Dalton, who hasn’t thrown an interception in a career-high six games and can tie Neil O’Donnell’s franchise record of seven against Chicago.
Dalton has thrown 176 passes since his last interception in the third quarter of Week 7 at Pittsburgh. It’s the longest of his career and longest in the NFL since Tom Brady, whose streak of 188 was snapped in Week 12 against Miami.