While Cincinnati Bengals fans were more interested in draft position than wins the past few weeks, first-year head coach Zac Taylor had a completely different agenda.
The Week 16 loss to Miami gave fans what they wanted with the top overall draft pick secure for next year, and now their wishes can re-align with those of the coaching staff and players.
Cincinnati (1-14) is looking to finish an otherwise miserable season on a high note when the Bengals host the Cleveland Browns (6-9) in the “Battle of Ohio” finale Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Attendance might not be what it would for two more competitive teams, but it marks the turning of the page to next season and Taylor hopes it’s a momentum builder for a more successful 2020.
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“The reason you want to be here in Cincinnati and in the NFL in general is because of the passion of the fans one way or another, they care,” Taylor said. “They want things for this team, however they want it, they want it, and that’s why I love being in this profession and have the opportunity to lead the team because when you do get things turned around going the right way, that passion is going to be in the stadium with us, pulling for us. We know we have to put in the work and make ourselves better, so that people are doing it that way, but when it comes it will be a lot of fun.”
This season hasn’t been what Taylor or anybody wanted when it kicked off in encouraging fashion with a one-point loss to a traditionally strong Seahawks team on the road in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.
The Bengals lost their next 10 games before finally getting Taylor his first victory and that has remained the only one. They are assured of at least tying the worst record in club history, but a win assures they don’t set a new all-time low. They went 2-14 in 2002.
“(It means) everything,” Taylor said. “It’s a home game. We’ve only won one of them. We haven’t won a divisional game yet. You can end the season on a positive note. It’s no different than any other game in that we always want to win, but there’s a lot of things to pull from here. It’s reward for hard work these guys have put in, reward for the city. I know the city wants us to beat Cleveland, the fan base, the coaching staff, everybody in this building, so there is plenty to play for this week.”
The Bengals are coming off an emotional game at Miami in which they rallied from a 23-point deficit in the fourth quarter, including scoring 16 points in the final 29 seconds, to force overtime only to lose on a last-second field goal in the extra period.
It was the kind of game that exemplified Taylor’s first season, once full of hope, but he insists this is as challenging as it will get for him. His job status for next year has never been questioned, despite the disappointing results, and it’s been a learning year for Taylor as he prepares to continue the rebuild with help of a full offseason ahead.
“You learn how to handle that not everything is going to be perfect,” Taylor said. “Not everything is going to be the way you envisioned it. You picture coming right in, winning every game and going to the Super Bowl. Those are the dreams you have obviously, but your day-to-day work has to match the dreams you have for the future. Those are things we have improved upon every week we’ve been here. We just have to continue to be real with ourselves as a staff and as players. What can we continue to do better this week against Cleveland, and in the future? Now that we have a whole season under our belt, you think, ‘OK, this is a little bit of a rhythm. Here’s how we can improve.’ I’m certainly excited to do all of that.”
Taylor will reflect more on the future next week. With the Christmas holiday Wednesday and players off Monday, he already feels like it’s a shortened week of preparation, but it helps Cincinnati just played Cleveland three weeks ago.
The Browns saw their playoff hopes come to an end with a 31-15 loss to Baltimore last week. They have dropped two straight games since beating the Bengals 27-19 on Dec. 8.
“It’s inside our house, and it’s the last shot of the 2019 Bengals going out and playing together,” center Trey Hopkins said. “We’ve been through a lot this season. Each and every guy in this building on this team and on our roster as it’s moved throughout the season has fought through something personally and on the team. We owe it to each other to go out with a bang and get a W.”
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