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We're allowed to use the "must-win" narrative once per Bengals season. Last season, I hesitated to use it for the fourth game of the season - coincidentally, a Thursday-nighter - before they hosted the Dolphines in late September, and it seems way, way too early to go that route now.
But it is a must-win, no?
The answer is, of course, yes. For a lot of different reasons, too. Not the least of which is the ugly track record of teams that started their seasons 0-2 and didn't make the playoffs. There's also next week's trip to Green Bay looming and a game in which the Bengals will not be favored. There's the difficult math of trying to figure out how a team that lost both of its first two games, both at home, can get to nine, ten, or 11 wins with two games against the Steelers still on the docket, a stretch of three-straight road games in front of them, possibly imposing matchups with Minnesota and Detroit, and that Packers game still on the schedule.
There's also what we as fans will do if they lose tonight. Suddenly, a two week-old season will be declared over and the focus will shift even further to what's going to happen with Marvin Lewis, the coaching staff, and even Andy Dalton. Someone will mention next spring's draft. Another person will go into fan boycott mode - a mainstay of a miserable Bengals season. Others will tell me not to even talk about them on the air.
Paul Brown Stadium, which wasn't exactly a full and vibrant place last Sunday, won't be a very fun place to be.
A win, and we stave off those things, even if not for long. The season will still have its uncertainties and most of us will still wonder if and when the team we saw last week against Baltimore will manifest itself again. But the season will be on if the Bengals beat the Texans.
It ends if they don't.
BENGALS v. TEXANS
Thursday Night Football has its critics. The games usually aren't very good. The matchups often lack punch. Sometimes, it feels like we watch more out of obligation than anything else. We consume Thursday night games because they're there, but if they weren't we really wouldn't miss them.
Tonight's tilt will do nothing to disarm those who believe that the Thursday night games are garbage. These two teams are a mess, mainly on offense, and there's little to suggest that Bengals/Texans will be at all telegenic. There's a lot to suggest that what feels like the 4 billionth meeting between these two AFC powerhouses will be a shitburger that would otherwise fail to corral our attention if we were watching impartially.
The spotlight will be on Andy Dalton, and already the national media is eating up the "you know, time could be running out for Andy" angle that's resulted from his disaster of a performance against Baltimore.
I admit, I wanted to see AJ McCarron last weekend, and if Dalton is as piss-poor tonight as he was last Sunday, I'd be okay with seeing if AJ can provide a badly-neeed spark.
But Marvin Lewis isn't going to do that, at least not if you consider his track record - he's never yanked a starting QB in a game for performance - and how he - like many of his peers - coaches.
Marvin coaches on Sunday thinking about the questions he'll get on Monday. He'd rather lose and steer clear of tough, uncomfortable questions than win and have to handle controversy.
Long term, I do think it'd be interesting to see what the Bengals would do if this season totally bottomed out and they ended up with a top five pick in next year's draft. Dalton is still just 30, provides coveted stability, and is under a team-friendly deal.
He'd also potentially be a prime trading chip and this coming class of quarterbacks seems pretty rich. I'd bet that Andy would still be the Bengals quarterback in 2018, but a trainwreck of a season for him and the team could change things, I guess.
But probably not.
I have a few questions about tonight's game.
*Where does a spark come from? Can John Ross - expected to play tonight - provide one in his NFL debut? Can it come from Adam Jones? (I'd have Pacman return a few punts tonight)
*Will the offense be more creative than last week? The approach against Baltimore was preseason-esque. And the deployment of running backs had a Pop Warner-feel to it. Also, they had Andy drop back deep too many times behind a line that couldn't hold blocks. The gameplan has to change.
*Can the defense cover the middle of the field? A concern for a linebacker core that wasn't bad last week, but is still without its best player, against a team that will have to expose holes in the middle.
*Is Michael Johnson's absence an example of addition by subtraction? I hate going this route, because the guy is dealing with a concussion, but wouldn't you like to see more of the younger rushers and less of the old guy?
*Can someone in the Mixon/Green/Eifert group get an abundance of touches?
*Can Randy Bullock make kicks in what's likely to be a low-scoring, close game?
*Oh, and how in the f**k will they block Houston's defensive line?
I have the Bengals winning tonight, giving them a modicum of confidence that they haven't earned. Part of this is history - often when Marvin and Andy are being counted out, they bounce back - part of this is taking a look at the Texans and wondering if they'll actually be able to dress enough players to play. Part of it is liking much of what I saw from the Bengals on defense last week, and taking into account that the Texans will be starting a rookie quarterback playing behind a bad O-line.
And part of it, for all of my cynicism this week, just has a hard time still believing the season will end before it starts.
Bengals 17 Texans 12
(Photo: Getty Images)
BENGALS LINKS OF THE WEEK
The usual array of NFL and college guesses will be posted tomorrow. I'm sure you'll be tossing and turning in bed in anticipation.