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On the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis chuckled about what might someday be known as the Ridiculous Deception.
With Sunday's 13-10 win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Lewis and the Bengals qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 30 years, which is a deep commentary on the ineptitude of Cincinnati owner Mike Brown. But that's a long, depressing story that has been told about as many times and in as many forms as "A Christmas Carol."
The really interesting backstory to Cincinnati's newfound success is how the Bengals completely rebuilt a team from virtually the ground up. That included Lewis firing longtime offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski after the 2010 season and bringing in Jay Gruden.
There's just one thing Lewis conveniently didn't really explain to Gruden.
"Yeah, I didn't tell him, ‘By the way, we have no idea who your quarterback and top two receivers are going to be,' " Lewis said in his most dry tone, followed by a knowing laugh.
After 2010, the Bengals made the decision to start over at key positions. Headed out were quarterback Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco/Johnson and Terrell Owens.
"Most of the time when you're a coach and you say you're going to start over, you have to change addresses to do that," Lewis said. "We were able to rebuild this while staying in the same building."
The key, of course, was what appears to be the brilliant drafting of wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round and quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round in 2011. Those two have started from the moment the league reconvened last July following the lockout and have been stunning.
"Andy has been able to handle everything from the time he got here and A.J. was one of two players in that draft who we thought was truly special, and he has been that," Lewis said, acknowledging that Denver's Von Miller was the other "special" player from that draft.
"We were right about him, too," Lewis said with another laugh.
On Sunday, Green (10 catches, 116 yards) and Dalton (24-of-41, 278 yards and two interceptions) were able to come up with the biggest play of the game at the most important moment, hooking up for a 21-yard gain to set up the game-winning field goal.
"We hung in there offensively even though we struggled a bit and made a play when we had to," Lewis said over his cell phone as Bengals players, coaches and staff shouted with joy on the trip home. "I've told the guys to just hang in there and do their job. The coaches, we'll try to call things aggressively and let me deal with the ramifications if it doesn't work."
On Sunday, it almost didn't. Lewis called for a 56-yard field goal attempt by kicker Josh Brown with 3:27 remaining. That was the longest attempt in the history of Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, a windy site just off the confluence of the famed Three Rivers that has played havoc with talented kickers. Brown predictably came up short on the attempt despite Lewis' confidence.
"Josh looked really good in warm-ups, and I thought the wind was good," Lewis said, his voice drifting off like a guy who knows he tempted fate.
Normally, this miss should have made it easy for Pittsburgh to drive the field for a touchdown or a field goal to end the game. Right now, however, nothing is terribly easy for the Steelers because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is completely out of sorts. Between injury and discomfort with first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense, Roethlisberger looks downright unsure. He threw two more interceptions, giving him three in the past two games. One had led to a touchdown (Leon Hall did that in the first half Sunday). The other two preceded game-winning field goals. We'll get back to that in a minute.
In the aftermath of Brown's miss, the best Roethlisberger could do was get the Steelers in position for a 51-yard attempt into the open end of the stadium. Shaun Suisham, like Brown, came up short.
Roethlsiberger got another shot at victory after a three-and-out by Cincinnati, but his deep toss to wide receiver Mike Wallace on second down was way off the mark and Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson intercepted it, putting the ball at the Pittsburgh 46-yard line with 14 seconds left.
Needing a decent chunk of yardage for a reasonable attempt and everybody knowing where the ball was going, Dalton and Green connected to put Brown in position for a 43-yard attempt. Brown made it, put the Bengals in the playoffs and ended three decades of embarrassing history.
All while the Steelers were supposed to be remembering the play that launched their four decades of greatness.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 16:
Nice work by the Baltimore Ravens (10-5), New England Patriots (11-4) and Denver Broncos (12-3) to hold serve to create, when coupled with the Houston Texans (12-3) loss, a gigantic jumble for the top seeds in the AFC. Houston, Denver and New England all still have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Houston gets the top seed if it beats Indianapolis. Denver gets the top seed if it wins and Houston loses. New England gets the top seed if it wins and both Houston and Denver lose. Baltimore can jump New England for the No. 3 seed if the Patriots lose and the Ravens win. Most important for the Ravens, it got a fine performance from quarterback Joe Flacco after weeks of inconsistent play.
• Nice work again by Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who led the Redskins to their sixth straight victory as they kept control of the NFC East with a game left against Dallas. Griffin finished with a rating of 102.4 against the Eagles, keeping him above 100 for the season, which would be a rookie record. Griffin is also averaging an incredible 8.3 yards per pass attempt. But perhaps the best number of the day was two: That's the number of times Griffin carried the ball, the second-fewest carries he has had this season. One way or another, Washington coach Mike Shanahan and son/offensive coordinator Kyle have to protect Griffin from running so much.
• It may have happened on Saturday night, but it's worth noting that the Atlanta Falcons came up with a decisive win at Detroit to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC. While beating the Lions may not qualify as a special victory this season, it's noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, the Falcons had control of the game from the beginning, allowing the Lions to get within a touchdown briefly in the second half. The Falcons also won their second straight in convincing fashion (although not as convincing as their win over the New York Giants) after a disappointing effort against Carolina on Dec. 9. The Falcons fell behind 23-0 in that game, although they made it interesting in the second half. Many analysts questioned whether the Falcons were legit after that game. The team has since quieted those critics, at least until the playoffs begin. However, the 13-2 Falcons still made an unusual living winning close games. The Falcons are 6-1 in games decided by six points or less this season. In 2010, when they routed by Green Bay in their first playoff game after taking the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Falcons were 6-2 in games decided by six or less. In five years with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons are 22-10 in such games.
• Amid all the great work of MVP candidate Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, often overlooked is the incredible work of kicker Blair Walsh. The rookie kicked a 56-yard field goal against the Texans to make him a perfect 9-for-9 on the year from 50 yards out, setting an NFL record. He was in a tie with Jason Hanson of Detroit and Morten Andersen of Atlanta with eight such kicks going into the game. Walsh's attempt was also the 135th of the season around the NFL as the league is on pace to break the mark of 140 attempts from 2011. Led by Walsh, Cleveland's Phil Dawson (five for five from 50 or longer) and Justin Tucker (four for four), kickers around the league are making more than 60 percent from 50 or longer for the second year in a row (leaguewide kickers were 90 of 140 last season).
• It has been a rough season for the New Orleans Saints in more ways than any team could imagine. So give the Saints credit for coming up with a big win over Dallas in overtime, led by the superlative play of quarterback Drew Brees, who outdueled Tony Romo with 446 yards passing and three TD passes compared to Romo's 416 yards and four TDs. This win was huge if for no other reason than to remind coach Sean Payton that he has the better quarterback in Brees. Since Brees got to New Orleans, the Saints are 3-1 against Dallas and Romo. All three victories are in Dallas. That's no small consideration because there is little doubt that Dallas owner Jerry Jones is going to make a run at Payton as the embattled coach weighs options with one-year left on his current contract. While Payton will have a lot of issues to go through (such as how close he wants to be to his son, who lives in Dallas with his mother while Payton and his wife go through a divorce), who he will have at quarterback will be one of the biggest. Age isn't much of a consideration (Brees will be 34 next season; Romo will be 33). This is about who he wants to have at quarterback for the next three to four years (Romo is expected to sign a contract extension this offseason) and Brees is the better bet.
The most heartwarming story of the season got better as the Indianapolis Colts and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck qualified for the playoffs with a win at Kansas City. The Colts continue to win in honor of head coach Chuck Pagano, who was cleared this week to return for the season finale against Houston, a game that now has more meaning as the Texans fight to hold onto the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Along the way, Luck broke Cam Newton's rookie record for yards passing and now has 4,183 for the season. Throw in 21 touchdown passes and Luck has been amazing this season. Too bad there's a good chance he could finish third in offensive rookie of the year balloting. What a year for young quarterbacks.
• While on the subject of the Colts, kudos to cornerback Darius Butler, who had an interception return for a score on Sunday against Kansas City. That's his fourth interception and second TD in 10 games since being signed during the season by the Colts. Butler, a former second-round pick in 2009 by New England, had three picks and one TD in his first three seasons.
• Congrats to Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, who probably isn't in the mood to accept the praise after the Texans' loss Sunday against Minnesota. However, Watt registered a sack on Sunday against Minnesota and now has 20 ½ for the season, meaning he's within two of tying Michael Strahan's record. Coupled with 15 knocked down passes (Watt is the only player in the NFL with both 15 passes defensed and at least 15 sacks), Watt is the favorite for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, although MVP is likely now out of reach.
•Speaking of Watt's chase of the sack record, which San Francisco's Aldon Smith also has a chance to break, consider this: The sack record and the rushing record (Peterson needs 208 yards in the final game to break Eric Dickerson's mark) are still within reach with one week remaining. Throw in Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season (Johnson is now chasing 2,000 yards in a season) and Luck's record and you have four pretty amazing marks potentially being broken in one season. That's quite a grand slam, so to speak.
The New York Giants continued to show their ugly slide with a lopsided loss in Baltimore. The defending champs have been outscored 67-14 in consecutive losses and have dropped three of four since shellacking Green Bay. In those two games, quarterback Eli Manning has a combined 311 yards passing. By contrast, Green Bay, has won four straight since that 38-10 loss which appeared to expose the Packers' offensive line. Instead, Green Bay has won each game by a touchdown or more, including a 55-7 thumping of Tennessee on Sunday. Overall, Green Bay has won those games by a combined 126-54. Over that span, Aaron Rodgers has thrown for seven TDs, one interception and run for two scores.
• If you're a Texans fan, you're probably nervous now and there's good reason: Quarterback Matt Schaub continues to look bad in critical games and has been mediocre over the second half of the season. In four of the past seven games, Schaub has averaged less than 7.0 yards per attempt in four games and less than 6.0 yards in three of them. He also has six of his 10 interceptions for the season in that span. Schaub has looked bad with his timing and indecisive at times. Couple that with a pass defense that continues to look bad (the Texans made Minnesota's Christian Ponder look almost decent Sunday) and you have a team that looks nothing like a serious contender in the relatively weak AFC.
• Fox analyst Jimmy Johnson delivered great criticism of the Cowboys at halftime of the Dallas-New Orleans game – a big point on why the Cowboys continue to disappoint in critical games. Johnson criticized coach Jason Garrett for a three-play possession at the end of the first half in which Dallas ran only 15 seconds off the clock, setting the stage for New Orleans' late first-half field goal. It was the kind of time in a game where you have to burn clock if you don't get good yardage after the first play of a possession. While the Saints still could have gotten the ball back with time remaining, they wouldn't have had two timeouts to help control the clock in the final 30 seconds. In a game that came down to a field goal in overtime, that was a critical misplay and is a big reason why you can expect Jones to be looking at Sean Payton, even in secret. About the only great thing you can say about Dallas is that second-year wide receiver Dez Bryant continued to look like the star the Cowboys hope he can be. He finished with 224 yards, including a pair of 58-yard TDs and had three clutch catches at the end of regulation.
• Kicking into the open end of Pittsburgh's stadium is tough, but it's hard to buy Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis' call to go for it on fourth-and-22 in the third quarter with the Bengals leading 10-7. Methinks the odds of Josh Brown (29-of-45 lifetime from 50 or longer, including a miss from 56 later in the game) making it or punter Kevin Huber pinning the Steelers deep was better than converting a fourth-and-22. The Steelers took advantage of the situation to drive for a game-tying field goal.
• Hmmm, for the second straight year, Tampa Bay went in the tank in the second half of the season. On Sunday, the Buccaneers lost for the fifth time in a row, three of those at home. Worse, the past two games have been non-competitive as the Bucs have been outscored by a combined 69-13. It will be interesting to see how first-year coach Greg Schiano deals with this underperformance in the offseason. Tampa Bay doesn't have a lot of young guys who understand how to win.
• Sad to see Andy Reid go out on such a low note as he coached what was likely his final home game with the Philadelphia Eagles after 14 seasons. After taking an early 7-0 lead, the Eagles were once again relatively uncompetitive and lost for the 10th time in 11 games. Seven of those losses have been by a touchdown or more. The Eagles are one loss from finishing with the worst record in Reid's career (he led them to a 5-11 record in 1999, his first season).
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