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Are the “Prime Time” Bengals Really a Different Team?

November 21, 2015 • Joe Messineo • Cincinnati Bengals, Features, Front Page

An internet meme made the rounds after the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals fell to an unheralded Houston Texans team in prime time on Monday Night Football. Playing off the well-known DirecTV commercials, the meme showed Andy Dalton next to a disheveled-looking version of himself. “Hi, I’m Andy Dalton,” the polished version says. “And I’m Andy Dalton in prime time,” says the messed-up version.

Jokes like these aren’t new. In fact, Dalton and his Bengals have been plagued with a reputation for prime time meltdowns for years now. Week in and week out, the Bengals look like one of the best teams in football; but put them in prime time on Sunday or Monday night, fans observe, and they look positively mediocre.

A Brief History of the Bengals’ Prime Time Failures

The latest prime time disaster for the Bengals is perhaps their worst ever. At 8-0 for the first time in franchise history, the Bengals only needed to beat the lousy 3-5 Texans to preserve their perfect record. But then the league’s third-best offense – which averaged more than 28 points per game coming into Monday night – put up just six points in the entire game. They scored two field goals and were held without a touchdown, and the Texans won, 10-6. The Bengals were held scoreless for the entire final 35 minutes of the game, including the entire second half.

Last year, the Bengals played four prime time games and lost three of them. The Bengals lost only five games last year; prime time failures accounted for the majority of their losses. They were crushed by the Patriots 43-17, and took two other prime time losses to the Steelers and Browns, neither of which were playoff teams in 2014.

In 2013, the Bengals were 1-2 in their three prime time games (they were 10-3 in their non-prime time games). They were also 1-2 in 2012 prime time games (and 9-4 in all other games). In 2011, Andy Dalton’s first year in the league, the Bengals didn’t play in any prime time games.

Is This Really Possible?

So if you’re counting at home, the Bengals are 4-8 (.333) in prime time games (including Thursday Night Football) since 2012, and they’re 35-9-1 (.795) over the same span when they’re not in prime time. That’s a massive, massive difference.

Twelve games over the course of four different seasons isn’t the best sample size, but it seems like enough to at least say that the Bengals’ failures are curious. Fans of advanced stats, who are already predisposed to believe that “clutch” performance is a myth, will likely argue that the jury is still out; others may see the gap as irrefutable.

No matter what you believe, you’ll get some more evidence to take into account this weekend. Once again, the Bengals will play in prime time: they’ll travel to Arizona and battle the 7-2 Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. We’ll see which version of the Bengals shows up.

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