This season is easily divided into two chapters, split at the bye week. The first was awful and better left forgotten, marred by ineffectiveness and missed opportunities. Fortunately, the second chapter has featured what would seem to be a completely different. And that is the team that will be making the trip to Houston in a few days.
I’ve learned several things about this team as I’ve watched them over the past two months. Here are some of them. Feel free to add to the list.
The defense can make life difficult on any team. We saw signs of it beginning against the Broncos, and they just kept building each week. They held more potent offenses like Dallas and Pittsburgh (who scored at least 20 points in each of their final six games except against the Bengals) to well below average and totally dominated the poorer offenses they faced. [That is very good news as they prepare to face a struggling Houston offense.]
The offense is only as good as the protection that the offensive line provides. The line looked good when they faced more meager defenses, but they have looked meager against the better defensive lines that they have seen over the past four weeks. Dalton’s level of play has corresponded completely. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has been getting praise for finding a guy like Trevor Robinson amongst all of the CFAs after the draft, but his line unit has to step up its play if the team hopes to break its 22 year playoff-win drought. [That's bad news as they prepare to face J.J. Watt.]
Kevin Huber is a difference-maker. The guy flips the field as easily as Shaun White flips tricks on a snowboard. He set a new franchise record for average punt distance by a comfortable margin this year. And unlike Mike Nugent, he has no need to fear not being with the team in 2013.
Andy Dalton is still a work in progress. And that is okay. Good quarterbacks often don’t find their full potential until their fourth or fifth season. Take Matt Ryan as an example, who is in his fifth season and has just broken into the top 10 this year. Dalton still needs some polishing, but he has shown enough to believe that he can be one of the better QBs in the league in a couple more years and can keep the Bengals competitive for a long time.
The front office has some tough decisions facing them over the next few years. Making back-to-back playoffs is a direct result of the strong drafts that the team has had recently. But paying all of the talent they’ve found as rookie contracts begin to expire is not going to be easy. It won’t be this year, but soon we could see the team have to let go of guys we like a lot because they just can’t sign everyone and not bust the salary cap. As long as the team continues to draft well, being a source for free agent (instead of a destination as in years past) will actually be a good thing. (Could Marvin Lewis perhaps continue his streak of home run drafts as the team’s General Manager?)
This team is finally built for sustained success. Hallelujah!