It takes a second for muscle memory to kick in when you haven’t played a game in eight months. Joe Burrow and Matt Ryan seemed to forget that in the NFL, you can’t wait until the fourth quarter to focus and execute.
In their season opener, Cincy played hooky in the first half and nearly got burned by Evan McPherson’s kicking in the second half and overtime. What was expected to be a ho-hum win over a Mitch Trubisky-led Pittsburgh Steelers squad became a throwback bungling Bengals outing.
I’ve heard of a Super Bowl hangover before, but the Bengals played like they chugged moonshine the night before. However, when that fourth quarter adrenaline kicked in, Burrow was fantastic. Mike Tomlin’s Blitzburgh defense frustrated Burrow throughout the first half, forcing him into four interceptions and a fumble. On Cincinnati’s final drive, Burrow fumbled for a second time when he was caught off guard by Arthur Maulet on the nickel blitz as the Bengals were marching into field-goal position. Samaje Perine recovered the fumble and picked up yardage, but because the fumble was recovered by another player, it couldn’t be advanced. As a result, the Bengals were forced to punt.
Burrow’s woes shouldn’t be a cause for concern in the long term. If Cincy kicker Evan McPherson had nailed a chip shot extra point, we’d be discussing his Joe Cool performance. Not only did he throw what should have been a game-winning touchdown to Ja’marr Chase as time expired, but he nearly connected with him in the end zone a few plays earlier. The image of that acrobatic, one-handed catch on the sideline would have been hung in The Louvre if Chase’s toe was a few millimeters smaller.
One drive before that, Burrow led the Bengals down to the goal line but was unable to punch it in, forcing the offense to turn it over on downs. A blocked extra point by Pittsburgh gave the Steelers passage to overtime and another missed field goal in overtime gave the Steelers an opportunity two win it.
The last time we saw McPherson in a pressure situation he was drilling a 51-yarder to bump the Titans out of the postseason and a 31-yarder to stamp Cincy’s Super Bowl ticket. On Sunday, he shanked a 29-yarder that would have won it in overtime. Steelers kicker Ryan Boswell ultimately rose to the occasion with his OT boot and 23-20 Steeler win, knocking the Bengals to 0-1 and the backseat in a crowded division. That one could come back to hurt later on in a division where they’ll be jostling with the Browns and Ravens.
Meanwhile, in Houston, the Colts were shut out of the end zone for the first three quarters. Houston was expected to be one of the NFL’s worst teams again. They didn’t address their talentless roster in the offseason, although they drafted Derek Stingley third overall and signed tight end O.J. Howard.
Matt Ryan tallied 352 yards by air and Jonathan Taylor rushed for 161 on the ground. You would assume with those numbers that they’d have blasted the Texans back into the expansion draft and be padding stats in the second half. Instead, Howard caught two touchdowns. In solidarity with Burrow, Ryan was throwing like he’d downed a Nyquil instead of a Dayquil before kickoff and hurling groggy interceptions.
After Stingley dove to break up Ryan’s pass to Alec Pierce on third-and-goal in the fourth quarter, the Colts looked like they were cooked.
Ryan and the Colts rallied with 17 points in the fourth quarter when the Texans nodded off with a 20-6 lead entering the third. In overtime, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship also may have kicked himself out of a job.
Blankenship’s missed kick with two minutes remaining in overtime may wind up being his Indy swan song. He also sent a pair of kickoffs out of bounds that gave the Texans great field position. In the end, this one finished in a 20-20 tie. In the long run, their kicker position will have to be addressed, but the connection between Ryan and Michael Pittman was strong.
The Colts have more room for mistakes in their division – especially after the Tennessee Titans got blindsided by the New York Giants and their gutsy 2-point conversion winner. Not a single AFC South team won on the season’s opening Sunday. However, if Burrow and Ryan played with the same precision they displayed in the fourth quarter, both teams would be 1-0 right now. Week 1 should be the wake-up call they needed.