OAKLAND - Sunday started on a good note for the Bengals when wide receiver A.J. Green emerged from a sweat-inducing pre-game workout on the greensward at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and pronounced his ankle "good."
If it wasn't his first on-field workout in nearly two weeks, it was one of the first. He had to shut it down after the most intense practice of his comeback in a Nov. 4 practice caused swelling and soreness. What that means for next week's game against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium is anyone's guess as the Bengals hope to get him back for the end of the season.
As happened Friday, Green was ruled inactive Sunday. Same with rookie tight end Drew Sample (ankle) and right guard Alex Redmond (ankle/knee). Left tackle Cordy Glenn (concussion) was again inactive, along with third quarterback Jake Dolegala and cornerback Torry McTyer.
The final inactivation, defensive end Anthony Zettel, paves the way for new/old linebacker Hardy Nickerson to get some snaps. Nickerson has been on the practice squad all season after playing 30 games the previous two seasons as the Bengals play their first game after the release of veteran linebacker Preston Brown. Rookie Germaine Pratt is expected to make his third NFL start in his place, but if the Bengals are to challenge Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, 189 yards shy of 1,000, they may have to play that base defense of three backers they've rarely used. Nickerson or Jordan Evans, who played a season-high 11 snaps last week, have played hardy at all as the third guy with Pratt and veteran Nick Vigil.
OLD SCHOOL: The last Bengals' game in the Raiders' Black Hole for the last time and if there has ever been a more apt nickname for a road venue in Bengals lore, what could it possibly be?
Through Al Davis, John Madden, Ken Stabler, The Stork, Howie Long, Rich Gannon, and, yes, Bruce Gradkowski, the Bengals are 1-10 at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum stretching back to that first one in the last days of the Humphrey-Nixon-Wallace presidential campaign of 1968.
On Oct. 27, 1968, Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw three touchdown passes, two to wide receiver Fred Biletnikof, as Oakland, just off an appearance in the second Super Bowl, beat the expansion Bengals, 31-10.
The Bengals didn't win out there until 47 years later, when one of three Bengals team that would finish 12-4 began their run convincingly with a 33-13 victory on Opening Day. After missing all but nine snaps of the previous season, tight end Tyler Eifert had his coming out party with two touchdown catches on the way 13 and a Pro Bowl berth.
"I remember it vividly," Eifert said last week. "The crowd was going nuts. There was a distinct smell. You could have got a contact high on the bench."
Just wait until Sunday. Not only will the famous villains of Raider Nation be smelling weed, they'll be sniffing a play-off berth at 5-4 with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes coming back to earth.
"It's got to be the only place in the league you can get a contact high on the sidelines," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who went to "The Black Hole," first as the teen-aged son of the Raiders head coach and then last year as the quarterbacks coach in head coach Jon Gruden's second term.
"It was one of my best experiences in football," Callahan says. "It's like a big Halloween party. It was a blast. They show up rain or shine, no matter the record. They love that team. Last year we opened up against the Rams and the place was packed. The one I'll never forget is the AFC championship game they won (2002). That was the loudest I ever heard a stadium."
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham lived many of those tough Black Hole losses as the versatile 10-year offensive linemen in the '70s and '80s. None hurt more than the late December, 1975 AFC divisional play-off game with Bengals head coach Paul Brown a week away from the AFC title game.
Quarterback Ken Anderson was driving the Bengals late in the game to what would have been a winning a touchdown or at least a tying field goal. But Hall-of-Fame outside linebacker Ted "The Mad Stork," Hendricks, the 6-7 pass rusher, swooped away with the game on back-to-back sacks to take them out of field-goal range.
"We went to a slide protection after that," Lapham says. "They went big and we couldn't pick it up. We used a back and he was too small.
"That was a tough one. Paul felt like he had us on the cusp and he stepped down. That was his last game."
But it wasn't the last trip to The Black Hole.
"I remember after one game they tried to roll us. Tried to roll the bus," Lapham says. "They're nuts. The Black Hole is aptly named. They were using face paint before it was popular. In the end zone, they'd spit on you and call you everything they could think of. Every sentence usually had a four-letter word."
Lapham has a lot of respect for late Raiders boss Al Davis and how he found the talent to fit his philosophy. He also noted when his teams didn't have great speed (like Biletnikof)
and the Bengals came in with cutting-edge speed like wide receiver Isaac Curtis, Davis would make sure the Coliseum grass was high.
"It was like a field," Lapham says.
On Sunday, the Bengals got their last shot on that field.