Finally, the Cincinnati Bengals are saying, after 11 physical weeks, it's here: the bye week.
With now 13 days to rest, heal up and refocus their energies, the Bengals are thankful for the much-anticipated arrival of this year's late off week. On Sunday afternoon, in their final game before the bye, the Bengals got things steered back into a positive direction when they rallied past the Cleveland Browns for a 41-20 victory. Along with a Ravens loss and Steelers win, the victory pushed Cincinnati's lead over the rest of the AFC North to 2 1/2 games, providing a rather significant cushion ahead of the bye.
It's a better place to be than the alternative. A loss Sunday would have left Cincinnati with a 1 1/2-game lead, and at risk of watching it drop to a single game while idle this week. A loss also would have been the third straight for the Bengals, and could have had a truly devastating psychological effect on the team. After starting 6-2, it would have lost three straight to go to 6-5, and would be looking to stay above .500 at San Diego in two weeks.
Even though that's not the case, that alarming possibility prompted Bengals safety George Iloka to say the following: "From here on out, every game will be crucial."
For the rest of the season, the Bengals don't want to have to climb out of the type of early 13-0 hole that they were able to get out of Sunday. They want to shake the slow starts and start hitting teams with their best shots earlier.
As we begin this look-back edition of the Morning Stripes, we'll start off with a couple of links from our ESPN NFL Nation Bengals blog:
Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson said after Sunday's game that he felt confident in saying the Bengals have a true home-field advantage. Cincinnati obviously has been doing something right at Paul Brown Stadium. After all, it is 5-0 there and has scored more than 30 points in three of those games. Still, the franchise-tagged defender wasn't too happy to hear boos in the first quarter when the Bengals were down by two scores after their offense threw a pair of interceptions and turned in a trio of three-and-out drives. If you don't want to support the Bengals, "leave," Johnson said.
Defense was expected to be the star of Sunday's contest. While the final score didn't much indicate that, at times, it was. It most certainly was for the Bengals, who allowed just one offensive score. In fact, when the game's momentum finally shifted for good, it was Cincinnati's defense that provided it. Just like it has at other points this year, the defense paced the offense. With respect to Cleveland's defense, which wasn't bad overall (the Bengals only gained 224 yards of total offense), cornerback Joe Haden was the hero, locking down the league's leading receiver, A.J. Green. Haden only allowed Green to catch two passes for 7 yards and ended up with two interceptions.
Moving on to a few other newspapers and websites, let's first look at Geoff Hobson's take on Bengals.com at Cincinnati's Will and Sam linebackers, Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison. As injuries have forced Harrison into a more expanded role, he enjoyed arguably his best game as a Bengal on Sunday. In addition to his interception that turned the game, he had four tackles. Harrison's pick set a tone to the game, as did Burfict's fumble recovery for touchdown. As this pair goes, so goes this intimidating defense.
Over the years, Harrison has drawn a reputation for being a player who has a unique edge. He toes the line of insanity and plays as close to it without being considered a dirty player. Burfict, in the two years he has spent in Cincinnati, has begun developing a similar reputation. With the two playing together for the first time this season, it appears Harrison is rubbing off on Burfict. Fox Sports Ohio's Kevin Goheen writes that that's a good thing for Cincinnati.
Finally, we turn to the Cincinnati Enquirer, where a story on backup linebacker and punt team specialist Jayson DiManche explores how his homework and goal setting paid off in Sunday's big win. DiManche, of course, had the key punt block that led to Tony Dye's scoop-and-score and first career touchdown. The sequence was part of a record-setting 31-point second quarter.
The Bengals may be getting ready to take a few days off, but the work doesn't stop here on the Bengals blog. Make sure you stay with us every day this week where we'll have analysis and features.