Winning a division title in the National Football League is no easy task. Ask the Buffalo Bills, who last won the AFC East in 1995. Ask the Detroit Lions, whose last division title was in ’93 in the now-defunct NFC Central. Or ask the Cleveland Browns, who last hoisted a division trophy in ’89 in the AFC Central.
While it certainly can be tough to win a division championship, in recent history it can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, to defend a division title. Of course there are exceptions such as Tom Brady’s Patriots, Peyton Manning’s Colts (and currently, Broncos), Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, Philip Rivers’ Chargers from 2006-’09 and Matt Hasselbeck’s Seahawks from ’04-07 who have won multiple division titles in a row.
On the other side of the coin, since the Bengals won their first AFC North title under Marvin Lewis in 2005, two entire divisions have gone that entire span without a repeat champion. Both the NFC East and NFC South divisions have rotated through champions every year since ’05. In that nine year span in the NFC East, the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles each have three division titles, the Dallas Cowboys have two and the Washington Redskins one. In the NFC South the New Orleans Saints have three and the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each have two.
In the same 2005-’13 time frame, the AFC North Division title has been defended successfully only on two occasions: The Pittsburgh Steelers won in ’07 and ’08, and the Baltimore Ravens in ’11 and ’12. Going back further to the days of the AFC Central, those two instances stand alone all the way back to ’99.
The Bengals have won three AFC North Division championships during Marvin Lewis’s tenure: 2005, ’09 and ’13. They neither defended their division titles in ’05 and ’09, nor made the playoffs the following year in either subsequent season. This piece will take a look back at the Bengals division winning teams, the squads that were attempting to defend the division crown (‘06 and ’10), as well as a brief comparison to the upcoming ’14 team.
Coming off a 2-14 season in 2002, Marvin Lewis was hired as the Bengals head coach and led the team to back-to-back 8-8 records in ’03 and ’04. In ’05, the Bengals climbed the mountain and won the AFC North Division, their first division title since winning the AFC Central in 1990.
The 2005 team finished 11-5, tied with the ’13 team for best Bengals record under Lewis. The ’05 team was led by third-year quarterback Carson Palmer in his second season as a starter. Palmer finished with an outstanding 101.1 passer rating, completing 67.8 percent of his passes for 3836 yards, a then franchise record 32 TD passes and 12 INTs.
Running back/wide receiver combination of Rudi Johnson and Chad Johnson had stellar seasons of their own. Rudi Johnson rushed for 1458 yards and 12 TDs, while Chad Johnson had 97 receptions for 1432 yards and nine TDs. Both the 1458 and 1432 yardage totals still stand as the second-highest, single-season marks in their respective rushing and receiving categories in franchise history.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals received strong performances from a pair of rookie linebackers from the University of Georgia. Second-round pick Odell Thurman led the team with 105 tackles while also adding 1.5 sacks, five INTs and four forced fumbles. First-round pick David Pollack chipped in 28 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Another defensive player — cornerback Deltha O’Neal — added 10 INTs, still a single-season franchise record.
The Bengals hosted division rival Pittsburgh in the Wild Card game. On the Bengals’ second offensive play, Palmer connected with wide receiver Chris Henry for a 66-yard pass, the longest in team postseason history. But Palmer suffered a serious knee injury on the play and was lost for the game. Backup QB Jon Kitna replaced Palmer and performed admirably, but the Bengals faded in the second half, eventually falling to the Steelers, 31-17.
Having spent the entire offseason rehabbing the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs, Palmer was ready to go for the start of the 2006 season. Expectations were high as the Bengals looked to return to the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
The 2006 team was similar in personnel to the division winner from the previous year but did have to undergo some alterations. After his stellar ’05 rookie season, Thurman missed the entire ’06 campaign due to violations of the NFL’s Substance Abuse Policy. He would never play in the NFL again. Pollack suffered a career ending neck fracture in Game 2 of the regular season. O’Neal missed four games due to injuries and was not able to match his ’05 output, recording just one INT. Longtime starting center Rich Braham was lost for the season in Game 2 with a knee injury and retired a week before the finale. Starting left tackle and former first-round pick Levi Jones suffered ankle and knee injuries and was limited to only six games.
Despite having several key players on the sidelines, the 2006 Bengals were right in the thick of the AFC North race. They were a streaky team — starting the season 3-0, losing five of their next six, then winning four straight — but they were in good position at 8-5 heading into the final three games. At 10-3, the Baltimore Ravens were in the division’s driver’s seat, but the Bengals still were in a position to make its first consecutive playoff appearances since 1981-’82. Their final three games were at Indianapolis, at Denver and vs. Pittsburgh.
The Bengals fell 34-16 at Indianapolis in Game 14 but were still in a solid position to clinch a Wild Card spot. Cincinnati traveled to Denver on Christmas Eve and, due to losses earlier in the day by Buffalo and Jacksonville, the Bengals were in a spot to clinch a Wild Card with a win.
In a back-and-forth tilt the Bengals had the ball down 24-17 with 3:52 left. Palmer and the offense marched 90 yards down the field, capped off by a 10-yard TD pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh to make it a 24-23 game with 44 seconds to go.
And then, disaster struck.
During the extra point attempt, the snap by long snapper Brad St. Louis sailed beyond the outstretched hands of holder Kyle Larson, and the Bengals were unable to convert. The Bengals recovered the ensuing onside kick, but it was nullified due to an offside penalty, and the Broncos recovered the second onside kick to seal the one-point win.
After the loss to the Broncos, the Bengals stood at 8-7 and still entered their final matchup vs. Pittsburgh with the possibility of earning a Wild Card berth with a win, but they would need help from other teams to do so.
With the game knotted at 17-17 in the fourth quarter, the Bengals had an opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal with 12 seconds remaining. Kicker Shayne Graham, the second-ranked NFL kicker of all time in FG accuracy at the time, uncharacteristically booted the 39-yard field goal wide right, and the game went to overtime.
On the third play in overtime, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes on a 67-yard TD pass, and for the second straight year, the Steelers ended the Bengals season. In the end, the Bengals would have made the playoffs if they had won any of their three final contests.
In comparing the 2006 Bengals to the current squad that has made three consecutive playoff appearances (’11-’13), one of the key differences is that the current team has been successful in December. Over the last three seasons, the Bengals have gone 10-4 in December (plus one regular season loss in January) and won the games they needed to win to make the postseason. Additionally, defense has made a difference. The ’06 squad ranked 30th in the league in defense, as opposed to the No. 7, No. 6, and No. 3 rankings of the last three seasons, respectively. The ’14 Bengals will hope to continue their recent December success and their strong defense in hopes of defending their division title and earning a playoff berth for a fourth consecutive season.
After a three-year playoff absence, the 2009 Bengals went a perfect 6-0 against the AFC North en route to their second division crown under Lewis. The team finished 10-6 overall and did it with a strong defense as opposed to the high-octane offense of the ’05 team.
In the second year under the direction of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals’ defensive unit finished ranked No. 4 in the league overall. The defense was anchored in the secondary by cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and
The 2009 offense/defense rankings juxtaposed that of the ’05 team with the ’09 team ranking 24th in the league in total offense and fourth in total defense, while the ’05 finished sixth in offense and 28th in defense.
The Bengals hosted the N.Y. Jets in the Wild Card playoff and jumped out to a 7-0 first quarter lead, but proceeded to allow 21 straight points en route to an eventual 24-14 loss.
After sweeping the AFC North in 2009, the ’10 Bengals seemed poised to make another playoff run. It was a roster that remained largely the same with a few changes. For one, they acquired flamboyant wide receiver Terrell Owens to pair with incumbent Chad Johnson. On paper, Owens seemed to be quite a formidable addition, but on the field, it didn’t quite pan out overall for the team.
The Bengals began the season 2-1, then sputtered through 10 consecutive losses to fall to 2-11. It was not as if the they were not competitive, as seven of the 10 losses were by a one-score margin. The Bengals finished the season with a glimmer of hope going forward, as they won two of their final three contests — including knocking the four-time defending AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers out of the playoffs — to finish with a 4-12 record.
We all know the story from there. Carson Palmer was traded to the Oakland Raiders, Chad Johnson was traded to the New England Patriots and Owens never played in the NFL again.
New leaders have emerged. The team drafted wide receiver
The Bengals are one of just five teams to have made the postseason in the last three years. They boast a young core with playmakers on both sides of the ball, and they have strong veteran leaders.
Will this be the year that they can defend the AFC North Division title? Will this be the year that they can get over the hump in the playoffs? We shall see. The work started in late April but it all begins September 7 in Baltimore. It will be here before we know it.