The Cincinnati Bengals enter this weekend’s game against the Baltimore Ravens understanding that they can no longer catch their rivals for the division crown. They also understand that they are locked into a playoff spot thanks to that victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday. At best, the Bengals can force a tiebreaker to decide between them and the Indianapolis Colts for the fifth and sixth seeds in the AFC. They can’t earn a bye or any home-field advantage until the AFC Championship, presuming both wildcard teams make it that far.
Having consumed all of that, Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis must weigh whether it is best for his team to play this weekend’s game with his starters, or run out the backups and protect them for the first round of the playoffs. A week of rest can work wonders for teams, and picking up costly injuries is always a concern, but outside of that there are very few reasons for the Bengals not to play to win this Sunday.
Teams that typically benefit from rest are veteran units who have played together for a long time. Those teams need rest and healthy rather than repetitions and development to best their chances at advancing in the post-season. With players like Geno Atkins, Andy Dalton and AJ Green leading the franchise, this is not one of those teams. The Bengals are one of the youngest teams in the whole league, not least in the playoffs. Despite making it to the wildcard round last season, much of what they are doing this season is new to them. Additions of players such as Terence Newman, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jason Allen shouldn’t be enough to off-set the influx of rookie and second year performers who the team relies on to get victories.
In Heinz Field on Sunday, the Bengals won in a playoff atmosphere, but it was far from an impressive display. The Steelers essentially beat themselves with crucial turnovers and ineffective decisions. Defensively the Bengals were outstanding, it must be said, but offensively Andy Dalton struggled severely as the Steelers shut down the Bengals’ rushing attack. The Steelers have an excellent defense, but they also were dealing with injuries and didn’t perform so well that other playoff teams won’t be able to replicate that pressure on Dalton. If it happens again, the Bengals can’t rely on the other team to beat themselves four times in a row.
If the Bengals have hopes of making the Super Bowl, rather than just making up the numbers, they need to enter the post-season in good form. More than any other team in the league, the Bengals have been reliant on good form to get where they are today. After an opening day loss to the Ravens, the Bengals won three straight, before losing their next four. A four game winning streak followed that, which was stopped by the Dallas Cowboys in Paul Brown Stadium. That loss could have started another streak, but a gift from the schedule, Nick Foles‘ Philadelphia Eagles on a short week, gave them a reprieve and started a new two game winning streak.
The Bengals need to give Dalton this game to rebound, but they also need to keep the confidence of their whole roster up as they enter the playoffs. Despite winning the division, the Ravens shouldn’t feel confident entering Paul Brown stadium this Sunday and the Bengals should feel like they can avenge that earlier defeat in the year. With their depth also, the Bengals only have a handful of players who they can’t afford to lose to injury: Green, Atkins, Dalton and tackles Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith. Marvin Lewis will likely play his starters and try to win the game this weekend, it makes more sense for them to try and continue this run of victories.