AFC Playoff Race: The Cincinnati Bengals Make A Move

The events of Sunday opened up the AFC playoff race. Pittsburgh’s loss to Baltimore and the reality that Ben Roethlisberger might not be back anytime soon makes the Steelers’ position at 6-4 very tenuous. Indianapolis is also 6-4. We looked closer at the Colts last week, and I don’t think anyone would consider them a lock. But only one team is in immediate striking distance of these two wild-card leaders, and it’s the Cincinnati Bengals at 5-5. Let’s look at their chances at playing their way into the postseason for the second straight year.

Cincinnati’s had an up-and-down year. They were blown out on the opening Monday Night game of the year in Baltimore, but then cashed in three straight soft games against Cleveland, Washington and Jacksonville. The losing quickly followed though—a home loss to Miami, blowing a game at Cleveland, then dropping games against Pittsburgh & Denver sandwiched around a bye. At 3-5, the season was slipping away until they stepped up with a 31-13 win over the New York Giants. Then the Bengals took advantage of the easiest of games in Sunday’s 28-6 win over Kansas City. Now they’ve got some momentum and a path back to the playoffs.

Defense has always been the calling card for Marvin Lewis’ teams, but that hasn’t been the case in 2012. The defense ranks in the lower half of the NFL in points allowed at 19th, with roughly equivalent play against the run and the pass. The secondary was seen as the one key weakness on this unit coming into the year and that’s held up through 10 games—Cincinnati’s poor play on pass coverage comes in spite of having one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, as both tackle Geno Atkins and end Michael Johnson are having great years rushing the quarterback. But it seems if Atkins or Johnson don’t knock the opposing QB down, a big play possibility opens up.

The offense ranks above average, at 12th in the NFL in scoring. Andy Dalton has had to take on a greater burden, as the offseason addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back hasn’t energized the ground game. Dalton has done a good job getting the ball downfield, particularly to A.J. Green, who has 911 receiving yards, but it’s come at a price—11 interceptions, putting Cincy on the (-1) side of the turnover ledger.

What we see here is a team that has completely flipped its identity. From a defense-oriented, run-first style that focused on minimizing mistakes, the Bengals now have to win games by throwing it downfield and living with interceptions. Dalton, in his second year, is not yet a point where he can assume this kind of load without the high interception volume.

It’s not going to be easy trying to win games on their current path. Cincinnati isn’t loaded with talent at receiver, so Dalton has to load up on going to Green, making it tougher to envision the turnovers coming down. The best possible hope for improvement has to come from the rush defense, which has much more talent than its 18th-place ranking in the NFL would suggest.

The schedule is manageable—a coming home game with Oakland puts the Bengals in good shape to win their third straight. Then it’s a big game at San Diego, as the Chargers are one of a slew of teams at 4-6 and hoping for a big finish of their own. A home game with Dallas follows. It’s very reasonable to expect Cincy to be 7-6 coming out of these games and 8-5 is also in play. Then it’s two straight road games. One of them is at Philadelphia, while it normally doesn’t matter where you play the Eagles in 2012, the fact it’s a Thursday night road game could make it a little tougher. Cincinnati then closes the season with a road trip to Pittsburgh and a home date with Baltimore. It’s well possible the Bengals could be 9-5 when they approach their AFC North rivals. Even 8-6 gives them a real shot to get in with just one win.

Perhaps Cincinnati is then the proto-type AFC team in 2012. They really don’t look playoff-caliber and probably aren’t, but somebody in this conference has to make it and when you start going game-by-game, you have to ask why it can’t be them.