The Bengals are 6-2. Let that sink in. The Cincinnati Bengals — the team universally heralded a mere two months ago by talking heads everywhere as the worst in the NFL and likely the worst in all of professional sports, the team most likely to go winless in 2011, the team that would be dumping Andy Dalton for Andrew Luck in April 2012 — is tied with Baltimore for the best record in the AFC. Only two NFC teams, the 8-0 Green Bay Packers and the 7-1 San Francisco 49ers, have better records.
Am I saying that the Bengals are the 4th best team in football? No. But with 6 wins already collected, the Bengals have met or exceeded the win total predicted at the start of the season by 90% of Bengals fans and 100% of fans of other teams. A fan base that expected to be parched for wins is delighted with overflowing optimism.
With games yet to be played against the 1-7 St. Louis Rams, the 2-6 Arizona Cardinals, and the 3-5 Cleveland Browns, an even record seems easily within reach. A sweep of those teams and grabbing just one win against the Steelers, the Ravens or the Texans will put them at 10-6 and could land them in the playoffs. Grabbing two wins in those 5 tough games should be enough to guarantee a playoff appearance.
So how has a team that was predicted to be spectacularly bad ended up on top of the AFC?
Clearly the defense gets top credit for the success so far. Mike Zimmer’s crew has opened every half with suffocating play. In 8 games they have allowed just 2 TDs & 1 FG in the first quarter, and the have allowed only 1 TD and 3 FGs in the third quarter. No opponent has scored twice in either of those quarters. And in the fourth quarter, when the most points are scored as teams leverage the clock, the defense has allowed only 43 points. No opponent has scored more than 10 points in the fourth, and only Denver (14) and SanFran (13) have score more than 10 points in the entire second half.
(The second quarter has been the worst for the defense with 64 points allowed. But 45 of those 64 have come against 3 opponents: Cleveland (14), Buffalo (17), and Tennessee (14)… all games won by the Bengals.)
The rotation of the defensive line is a major factor for why the defense closes out games so strong. They simply have far fewer snaps than the opposing linemen. And closing down opponents in the second half has allowed the Bengals to make four comeback wins already this season.
The second round of kudos goes to special teams. Kevin Huber and Mike Nugent have done a good job of keeping the ball deep in opponents’ territory, and coverage teams have nearly eliminated the big returns that were so common in years past. Winning the battle for field position has turned points into punts, and “that’s a good thing” as Marvin says.
Crediting the offense last does not mean that I do not appreciate what they have done. They have scored 195 points so far, just 1 less than the Steelers offense led by their much-praised QB. They have been steady when we expected to watch something between spotty and flat-out horrendous. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green deserve the attention they are getting, but solid play by the offensive line and timely contributions by everyone has kept the offense good enough to snatch wins.
Since I broke it down for the defense, here is how the offense has done by quarter and a comparison to points allowed.
- 1st: 40 pts (+23)
- 2nd: 29 pts (-35)
- 3rd: 39 pts (+23)
- 4th: 87 pts (+44)
Of course, we have to note that more than half of the point differential in the fourth quarter has come from big plays by the defense.
After beginning the season pretty pessimistic about the Bengals, I am now a believer, especially after coming back yesterday against a Titans team that seemed to have their number early. With a lot of hard work, some more growth at the skill positions, and a little more of the good fortune they have enjoy so far, I believe that going 4-4 in the back half of the season is very likely, that making the playoffs is a decent possibility, and that going 5-3 down the stretch is not impossible. Who dey!