In the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-20 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, the team had both peaks and valleys. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw three interceptions and lost a fumble, defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered a torn ACL that ends his season and the game ended on a walk-off safety.
But, for all those low points, they were nearly matched by the Bengals' greatest feat of the night—running back Giovani Bernard's 35-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 17 in the early part of the fourth quarter.
However, later in the game, Bernard apparently suffered a rib injury on an otherwise routine run up the middle. Though Bernard is not expected to miss any time, the incident proves that the Bengals might want to be more cautious with him moving forward.
Bernard has played 315 offensive snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), just about half of his team's total of 637. He has better grades as a runner, a receiver and a pass protector than fellow back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has rushed 81 times for 361 yards and four touchdowns and has caught 30 passes for 267 yards and two more scores.
He's a versatile weapon and a dangerous player any time he touches the football. For these reasons, it makes sense that the Bengals wouldn't want to put him on the shelf next week against the Baltimore Ravens—or ever—but if the Bengals want to make a deep run in the playoffs, having Bernard as healthy as possible is necessary.
Though Bernard likely doesn't have broken ribs, whatever the extent of the injury he sustained is likely to be a painful one, and one that can linger for a while.
Last year, then-Cleveland Browns and current Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson played nine games with broken ribs, which hindered his production and lowered his value to his former team, resulting in a trade. Washington running back Alfred Morris suffered bruised ribs in September, but his performance didn't appear to suffer.
But how the Bengals handle Bernard for the rest of the season matters more, in terms of both Bernard's health and the Bengals' postseason hopes.
Because Bernard has become such an asset, performing all of his duties as a running back exceedingly well for a rookie, the Bengals need to protect him instead of overworking him. Green-Ellis is an effective back, and Dalton has a great number of quality receiving targets who can all help should Bernard get a reduced snap count prior to the big playoff run.
With the Bengals down their top defensive lineman in Atkins and their top defensive back when Leon Hall tore his Achilles tendon earlier this season, they cannot afford to now start losing playmakers on offense.
That's not to say that Bernard needs to sit next week or that they need to be so cautious with him that they actually hurt the team rather than help it, but Bernard's rib scare Thursday was a bit of a wake-up call. There needs to be a risk-and-reward balance with Bernard, especially if his pain lingers into Week 10 and beyond.
Barring a major collapse and the rise of another of their divisional rivals, the Bengals are poised to be the AFC North champion when the postseason kicks off in January. Bernard needs to be healthy if the Bengals are finally going to get the playoff win that has eluded them the past two years.