There’s a reason the Cincinnati Bengals have the historical nickname of the “Bungles”; they have been the definition of mediocrity for a long time. Not since 1991 have they won a playoff game and after four straight seasons of first-round playoff exits coming into 2015, you had to wonder if this team could ever shed it’s unflattering nickname. Even when they do something right, everyone seems to think it will all come crashing down. Maybe, just maybe, things are finally going right and will stay that way for Cincinnati.
This year’s Bengals came out strong to begin the season, owning a 8-0 record (the best start in the history of their franchise). Even more promising than the unblemished record is the clear and present talent that is on the Bengals’ roster. Offensive play-makers coupled with an oft-dominant defensive unit provide one of the most well-balanced rosters in the entire NFL. Of course, none of that matters if this team fails to take the next step once the postseason comes around.
It’s pretty clear that Cincinnati is good. Good enough to make the playoffs. Good enough to win the AFC North. Just how good are they beyond that, though? Can they break the never-ending playoff win drought? Is this the year they stop “bungling” and start living up to the hype? Let’s find out.
Back to the talent of this team for a minute. Offensively, every position for the Bengals has a difference-maker (or two) who can step up and win games for this team. You can’t discuss this offense without beginning with A.J. Green, who is arguably a top-five receiver in the league. Green has been great in his first four seasons as a pro, but in year five, he is on pace for his best campaign yet. With 702 yards and four touchdowns through seven games, the man is nothing short of a nightmare for defenders. Even better for Green and the Bengals, the rest of the receiving corp is pretty good in their own right.
Tight end Tyler Eifert has broken onto the scene in 2015 for Cincinnati. After an injury plagued sophomore campaign in 2014, Eifert has been a force in the middle of the field, collecting 434 yards and (more importantly) nine touchdowns, six more than he had in his previous two seasons combined. Eifert provides a special kind of value for this offense. He’s a red zone threat and takes attention away from guys like Green, making him critical to the Bengals’ success.
Other receivers, like Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, have made plenty of plays for the Bengals too. Moving away from the pass catchers, the duo in the backfield for Cincinnati is truly special. Jeremy Hill was the main man last season and he’s shown flashes of that success here in 2015, rushing for five touchdowns. Two years ago, the feature guy was Giovani Bernard, who’s reasserted himself into that role this season with 411 yards and a 5.6 yards-per-carry average. Both Hill and Bernard have the ability to be No. 1 options out of the backfield. The fact that the Bengals have them both is an underestimated luxury.
Then you get to the man who makes this offense run. Andy Dalton has been scrutinized for his inability to win big games, constantly labeled as a mediocre quarterback. This season, however, Dalton is playing like an MVP candidate. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns compared to just four picks on the year while compiling just over 2,200 passing yards. He looks strong, confident, and smart with everything he is doing this season, which has been a remarkable transformation to witness. In all honesty, Dalton held this team back in those playoff losses. If he plays at this level in the playoffs this year however, that drought will likely end.
With all of the talent on the Bengals’ offense, Cincinnati could probably get by with a so-so defense. However, their defense is far from mediocre.
Giving up under 18 points per game and generating a good amount of turnovers, the Bengals’ defense has been critical to the team’s undefeated start. In four of the team’s eight games, the margin of victory has been tight (like six points or fewer tight). In each of those games, the defense found a way (along with clutch plays by the offense) to seal the victory. It’s a unit that bends but doesn’t break, which is clear by their low point-per-game total.
Aside from the hard numbers, the individual players on this defense are special. Reggie Nelson has three picks on the year, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins each have five-plus sacks, and Rey Maualuga is one of the true leaders at linebacker. With this unit and their effective offense, the Bengals have what it takes to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Everything is set up for this team to do things they haven’t done in decades. They’ve shown grit, playmaking ability, and everything else it takes to be a playoff winning, Super Bowl-contending club. They’ve all but locked up the AFC North (more than a three-game advantage over the Pittsburgh Steelers), but making the postseason simply isn’t enough anymore. They have to win once they get there this year, otherwise major changes could be coming.
In the remainder of the season, a couple key games could determine the Bengals’ ultimate success come January. November 22 against the Arizona Cardinals on the road will test both their offense and defense, as the Cardinals have one of the most well-rounded teams (like the Bengals) in the NFL. December rematches, against their division-rival Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, will also tell the world a lot about the true greatness of Cincinnati.
However, their biggest remaining game may be in week 16, when they travel to Denver to play the Broncos on Monday night. Just last season, the Bengals prevailed over the Broncos on Monday night, earning them a rare prime-time win. That was at home though and the Broncos, like the Bengals, have major Super Bowl aspirations this season. The Broncos also have the best defense in the league, which will test the Bengals’ offense like no other team can. A win in this game would build a lot of momentum rolling into the postseason. If they come out victorious, you might have to consider Cincinnati a legitimate title favorite.
Without a doubt, the Bengals feel like a team that will win at least one playoff game this year. In fact, if they don’t win one, this franchise might truly be cursed, because this is one of the best (if not the best) teams they’ve ever had.