Opening Day of the NFL season is one out of 16. That makes it 10 times as important.
The first win of the football season matters, and it matters to get it right away -- especially if that first game is at home and especially if the opponent is one of the teams you need to beat for your division championship.
The Bengals accomplished all that Sept. 10 in their fascinating 27-20 win against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, and we can't say much more about it very happily. The Bengals survived in front of their electrified fans against an opponent that suffered waves of injuries and six turnovers.
Were it not for a call, a very bad call, the Bengals could be licking their wounds this week. Interference against Baltimore tight end Todd Heap, an official figment of the imagination, robbed the Ravens of his touchdown catch that would have set up the tying kick with two minutes left. The crew made sure to call holding against the Bengals' Madieu Williams on the next play, setting up Baltimore with a fresh set of downs at the 6, but there's no restitution for a stolen touchdown.
A few concerns about the Bengals surfaced Monday night, and we might as well wonder about them now. Still, nothing that happened matters as much as this: a win.
Carson Palmer put it best in his opening remarks to reporters: "We'll take it. Any time you get an ugly win or a pretty win -- a win is a win against that team, against that defense."
Working behind a reconstituted offensive line from center to left tackle, the Bengals won.
But they couldn't run. Left tackle Levi Jones is hurt, former left guard Eric Steinbach is off to Cleveland, former center Rich Braham is retired and recovering right tackle Willie Anderson can't be feeling his best. Andrew Whitworth started at left tackle, Stacy Andrews at left guard and Eric Ghiaciuc at center.
The Bengals rushed for 55 yards in 23 carries, going much more successfully to the right than to the left. The line did a pretty good job of protecting Palmer, but the short passing game might have helped with that and the running game was scary bad.
Naturally, a lot of that is Baltimore's esteemed defense, which loaded up against the run, but that's no cause for celebration on the Bengals' end. At best, it compels us to suspend judgment.
The minute the Bengals are able to run left this year against a strong defense, we'll throw a party, because that means the team is going places. The three most important guys in this team are Whitworth, Andrews and Ghiaciuc because Jones' knees have taken him out of the loop. If these blockers can step up and somehow play at a level above their limited experiences, we have an offense that can travel anywhere.
If not, then the Bengals will improvise. They found spaces in the Baltimore defense with a horizontal passing game throughout the first half, throwing sideline passes too short for the corners and too wide for the linebackers. But when the Ravens adjusted in the second half, the Bengals could not move the ball.
The Bengals' best two offensive plays in the second half came back-to-back, ending with a screen pass behind the line to T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a seven-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The touchdown capped a moment of inspiration for the Bengals, who had taken over at the Baltimore 22 after defensive end Robert Geathers returned an interception 30 yards. Then Rudi Johnson juiced up a 15-yard run over right guard to set up the touchdown. A two-point conversion added up to a 27-20 lead, along with a brief sense of relief with 8:48 left.
But the Bengals managed only 28 other yards after intermission. Their only other second-half touchdown came on Landon Johnson's 34-yard fumble return in the third quarter, which illustrated, more than any other play, how the Bengals won this game. If the Bengals didn't absolutely stop the run, they hit hard and popped balls loose.
You like a defense that forces fumbles, and you love a defense that recovers them. The Bengals recovered four of the five fumbles they forced. And the Bengals threw in two interceptions, including the huge pick by Mike Myers in his own end zone as Baltimore drove toward the tying score with 1:13 remaining.
Until Baltimore's turnovers piled up beyond redemption, the Bengals basically traded back each one by allowing a big play in the kicking game. Not only did the Baltimore's paltry offense trump the Bengals' paltry offense with an advantage of 314 yards to 236 from the line of scrimmage, but Baltimore finished with an unacceptable 245 yards in kick returns.
The lowlight for the Bengals, a 63-yard touchdown punt return by Baltimore's Ed Reed, put the Ravens into a 20-19 fourth-quarter lead after the Bengals had gone ahead 19-10. Less lamented and also crucial was a 47-yard kickoff return for Baltimore's B.J. Sams, which set the Ravens at the Bengals' 41 with 55 seconds left in the first half, right after a field goal gave the Bengals a 12-7 lead. Baltimore cashed in with a Matt Stover field goal as 6 seconds remained in the half.
Marking that field goal against the Bengals' coverage teams and adding Reed's touchdown, Baltimore scored 10 points in the kicking game. That kind of performance is no part of a winning formula for the Bengals.
Thankfully, there's no "U" column (for "Ugly") in the standings. So long as the divisions remain the same, that home game against Baltimore is one of the five or six most important days on the Bengals' calendar, and any kind of a win is a moral holiday. It just happens that this one came gift-wrapped.
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