When a tie feels like a loss

With Ohio State off this weekend, Ohio had a chance to focus on its pro football teams, and the Browns and Bengals certainly delivered plenty of storylines to get us through. Some thoughts on the men in stripes…

OK, so it wasn’t all bad. And it isn’t all bad. But it sure felt bad. And a day later it really hasn’t started feeling better.

The Bengals did some good things Sunday against the Panthers. They also did some bad things. The latter could have been erased with one kick by Mike Nugent, but the home-state hero didn’t come through.

The result was a 37-all final score that left the Bengals in first place in the AFC North but lots of questions about the rest of the season.

The way the Browns whipped the fading Steelers made the result all the more meaningful, leaving the division lead feeling more precarious, but the tie was not really the top story in Cincinnati.

The feeling was proof the Bengals have finally turned the corner, that the dark decade of the 1990s is gone — and not just because rookie Jeremy Hill recalled the 1988 Super Bowl season with his own version of the Ickey Shuffle.

When was the last time not losing to a reigning division champion with a budding superstar quarterback felt so bad? This was practically Jeff Blake’s debut against Dallas, except the Bengals lost that game. And it was only disappointing because winning was so rare then. Not that it really meant anything in the grand scheme of things.

This, though, was disappointing because it was a chance to maintain a division lead of more than percentage points. And it was disconcerting because it highlighted some potential deficiencies in a team that entered the year expecting nothing less than a fourth straight trip to the playoffs.

Chief among the concerns is a defense that was ripped last week in New England, too. The carnage wasn’t so bad In the Carolina game, but the scars could be lasting.

The fact is Cincinnati has a problem getting to the quarterback without blitzing, and the Bengals’ secondary looked vulnerable every time those blitzes were picked up — which was most of the time.

Tom Brady picked apart the Bengals a week ago with a hodgepodge of weapons. Cam Newton did the same this week without much more that should scare anyone, either, especially considering his second-best weapon is a rookie receiver.

Are they missing Mike Zimmer, the defensive coordinator who not only dreamt up effective blitzes but seemed to will his players to play better than they sometimes were? Probably.

Do they need a full-strength Vontaze Burfict? Definitely. The run fits were abysmal against the Patriots, and the front seven was put on its heels against Carolina by how effectively Newton ran the zone read. This is the type of play that requires discipline to defend, and the Bengals didn’t show that often enough.

They also haven’t been the same inside since Geno Atkins blew out his knee last season. He is back, but he doesn’t have his name called very often these days. It’s hard to blame him if he’s not 100 percent, though, as he is less than a year removed from major knee surgery. That he’s out there at all is a credit to him, but he doesn’t seem able to have his normal impact — which is major — and the Bengals are missing that.

Of course there are the injuries to the top receivers, but the Bengals seemed to do OK in that area for the most part Sunday. Mohamed Sanu has the ability to be a star, and Jermaine Gresham made it all he way through a game without a crippling mistake.

Andy Dalton, the guy who was supposed to be the biggest question mark of the season before it started, played pretty well this week. As he did last week. He could have been better, but he was good enough.

The offensive line? Pressure in Dalton’s face was a factor on his game-changing interception in the third quarter as well as a key incompletion prior to one of the field goals Mike Nugent made.

Speaking of Nugent, kicker seems to be an issue as well. He’s been getting by without as much power as he had earlier in his career for a while, but he hasn’t had the same accuracy this season. As loyal as the Bengals typically are, his job is probably safe in the short term, but this is a situation that will continue to be a concern until he gets in a good roll. And if they bring in some competition, there is nothing wrong with that, either. Due diligence is important.

Where do they go from here? That’s hard to say. Injuries are a fact of life in football, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t legitimate reasons for teams to struggle.

The NFL, with its intentional parity and relatively short season, is a zero-sum game. Wins all count the same. So do losses. The final standings often come down to a game or two, and more than half of those games are usually decided by a possession or two. That’s often true whether a contender plays well or poorly on any given day. That’s just the way it goes.

So Nugent could not have answered the questions about the team by knocking through his last kick of the day, but he could have made them feel less urgent. He could have put a smiley face on the day, one of only 16 the Bengals are guaranteed to play a game that counts this year. A win would not have solved those problems, but it would have provided a little more cushion for getting them fixed.

Which side of the won-lost column a game goes on is all that really matters. But what if it doesn’t go on either side? I guess then it’s up for interpretation.

Time will tell what it meant, but feelings are a reminder of where they’ve been. For what it’s worth, I guess.

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