The AFC is looking for a frontunner. Traditional favorites in New England and Pittsburgh have yet to find their footing. Fast starter Kansas City is renowned for owning September and October. Everyone else is trying to sort themselves out. And the Cincinnati Bengals are off to a 3-1 start and looking to take advantage of the conference’s fluid landscape.
Marvin Lewis continues to patrol the sidelines in Cincy, as he has since 2003. The last two years have been sub-.500 campaigns for Lewis, coming off what had been the best seven-year run of his tenure. From 2009-15, the Bengals made the playoffs six times. Although they went 0-6, each loss coming in the wild-card round. Even if they are a legit contender again in 2018, is there any reason to think this season could be any different?
If you’re a lawyer arguing the Cincinnati case, you can point to the fourth-ranked offense in the league. A.J. Green continues to be one of the NFL’s best receivers and Tyler Boyd has turned into a prolific #2 target. Through four games, Boyd is actually the most targeted receiver in the passing game and prevents opposing secondaries from getting to exclusive with Green.
The 23rd-ranked defense would be an obvious red flag, but this side of the ball has two excellent playmakers in the trenches. Geno Atkins, the 30-year-old defensive tackle continues to be one of the NFL’s best interior disruptors and has four sacks. Carlos Dunlap at defensive end has three more sacks.
What’s more, defense is Lewis’ area of expertise and the traditional strength of this team. Even over the last two losing seasons, Cincinnati’s defense ranked in the top half of the league in points allowed. If you’re a Bengals fan, and the biggest concern out there is your defense, you can still feel pretty good about where things might end up.
But the lawyer arguing against Cincinnati can point out several other problems. Tight end Tyler Eifert, whose presence in the underneath passing game had been invaluable, was lost for the remainder of the season this past Sunday. The Bengal running game is marginal at best and they were reliant on all three prongs of the Eifert-Boyd-Green trifecta to keep the offense humming. And if we’re going to assume, based on past performance, that the defense will improve, it’s equally fair to assume the offense will decline.
Andy Dalton continues to be way too mistake-prone at quarterback. He’s thrown six interceptions already. The 3.8% of his throws that have been picked off are near the bottom of the league, comparable to rookies Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. Only Dalton is 31-years-old and at this point of his career, he is who we think is (to paraphrase Dennis Green).
Cincinnati is undeniably an improved team and it should be interesting watching them joust with Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North. But it’s with good reason that oddsmakers remain skeptical—the Bengals are still the seventh choice on the Vegas board to come out of the AFC and reach the Super Bowl. They have the look of a team that could make the playoffs and then quietly go home in the first round. You can do a lot worse. But that’s an awfully familiar result in southwest Ohio.