To say the Cincinnati Bengals have a history of collapsing under the lights is an understatement. Since 2003, the Marvin Lewis-led Bengals were 9-31 in primetime games. The Bengals’ misfortune is perhaps best summed up in the 2016 home playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Despite having the lead and the ball in Pittsburgh territory with 1:36 to go, a fumble and two bizarre personal fouls left the Bengals on the losing end, still seeking their first playoff win since 1991. The Bengals don’t just lose big games; they find creative ways to do it, each one seemingly more heartbreaking than the last.
But this is a different team, sort of. Lewis is gone, replaced by Zac Taylor, but the quarterback remains the same. Sure, Andy Dalton wasn’t the quarterback for the infamous Steelers playoff meltdown (due to injury), but he’s also had his opportunities and failed miserably. His career primetime record is 6-19. That’s a paltry 24% winning percentage for those keeping score. Bengals fans know all too well the faults of Dalton’s bright lights performances.
The game beyond the game
On Monday night, the Bengals travel to Heinz Field to take on the rival Steelers in a battle of 0-3 teams. The subtext goes far beyond who remains in the AFC North basement come Tuesday morning. This is a battle of two teams potentially on diverging paths. The Steelers are a wounded team struggling without three of their longtime offensive mainstays. The Bengals are trying to establish a new culture under a first-year head coach. One could argue it’s the most relevant Monday Night Football matchup between two 0-3 teams in recent NFL history.
The bad news for Cincinnati: Dalton is the key. Most of the core of that 2015 Bengals playoff team is gone. The three men responsible for the 4th quarter debacle, running back Jeremy Hill, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and cornerback Adam Jones, are all gone. Most of the offensive line has been reshuffled. The same goes for the defensive line. But Dalton and his 6-19 primetime record remain.
Who is to blame?
This is the first true litmus test for Taylor as head coach. Is he the man to reverse the fortunes of a snake-bitten Bengals franchise? No one expected Cincinnati to make the playoffs this season, but a win here would go a long way in building confidence in a young roster. It would also answer long-standing questions in Cincinnati: Can past losses be blamed on Marvin Lewis or owner Mike Brown? Is the team’s failure to move beyond the wildcard round of the playoffs a coaching issue or a systemic one?
A win Monday night won’t definitively answer that question, but it gives Taylor a leg up on a division rival that has used the Bengals as a punching bag for years. Now it’s the Steelers that find themselves against the ropes, and Taylor can win the first-round by slaying the primetime dragon and defeating Pittsburgh on their home turf.
Why it matters
It’s a tall task and one that Dalton might not be up for. Though the Bengals are passing more frequently under Taylor and Dalton’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) of 20.5 is near the bottom of all NFL quarterbacks (more on OSM in the Pro Football Network Data Lab here). Given RB Joe Mixon’s early struggles, it might be Dalton that has to put the team on his back. That’s a task he’s historically been unable to do.
NFL oddsmakers agree. The Steelers are four-point favorites on Monday night, and you can’t blame them given Cincinnati’s track record. It’s a heavy burden for Taylor to carry into his first primetime game as head coach. Though a win can’t change the past, it can help transform the narrative around Andy Dalton and the team’s outlook for the future.