This wasn’t supposed to be a good year in football for the people of Cincinnati. The college Bearcats were presumably in decline two years after the departure of Brian Kelly for Notre Dame, and the Bengals were…well, they were still the Bengals and all we knew was that Carson Palmer refused to play for them anymore. But coming up on this weekend, the Queen City has a shot at a major bowl game in college and the playoffs in the NFL. Here’s an overview of where they stand…
BENGALS QUIETLY HANG IN THE AFC NORTH
The Bengals have quietly put together three straight wins as they get set to make a trip west to face Seattle. And the bye week just concluded was good to Marvin Lewis’ team—they got a surprise gift in the form of Baltimore’s shocking loss in Jacksonville on Monday night and the AFC North is now a logjam of Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh with two losses apiece.
Baltimore’s loss was the good news in the standings, and even better for the long-term health of the franchise was the trade of Carson Palmer to Oakland for two first-round draft picks, a deal that will both strengthen the organization in the future as well as eliminate a source of distraction. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton no longer has to look over his shoulder wondering if Palmer might return. And while it doesn’t directly affect the team, I’m sure no one in Cincy shed any tears when Palmer’s first start as a Raider was an utter disaster. Dalton has a lot of work to do to become a truly consistent NFL starter, but he is making reasonable progress for this stage in his career and he’s growing right along with talented receiver A.J. Green, and had been doing the same with possession receiver Jordan Shipley, before the latter’s injury knocked him out for the year.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream during the bye week. Running back Cedric Benson was suspended for the coming week for a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. He’ll return, but the Bengals aren’t the kind of team that can afford a loss in personnel like this against anybody, even a team as woeful as the Seahawks. Ultimately, Cincy has to win by running the ball and Benson has to have himself on the field. The team is playing consistent defense, Lewis’ area of expertise, although the lack of true superstar talent anywhere will be a hindrance when it comes to making game-changing plays.
I don’t know that anyone really believes the Bengals are ready to hang with the Steelers and Ravens for the long haul, and I’m not ready to make that leap either. But both of the AFC North’s powers have shown their vulnerabilities. Pittsburgh’s overall pass defense statistics are good, but that belies the fact they haven’t played very many good pass offenses and the ones they have (Baltimore, Houston and Arizona) have had success in the air. With Tom Brady coming to town next, it won’t get easier for the embattled Pittsburgh secondary, and the running game has been inconsistent at best.
In the case of Baltimore, they have the ability to look the part of the best team in the AFC, including New England, but the losses to Jacksonville and an earlier bad loss to Tennessee show they have an incredible ability to no-show games, something I did not expect from this team. It makes one wonder if John Harbaugh has the same firm grasp on the club that he had the first three years, or if maybe the talent isn’t quite as good as some of us believe. Either way, losses like that show that you can’t really count on anything week-to-week.
Cincinnati has a chance to stay competitive all year long in the AFC North. Whether they steal a playoff berth or even reprise their 2009 division title will depend on mistake-free football from Dalton, Green turning safe routes into big plays, Benson and the line establishing the run and the defense stepping up to force turnovers. It’s a lot to have go your way and I won’t predict it, but I also didn’t expect to even be speculating on Bengal postseason chances in late October.
BEARCATS THE EARLY BIG EAST FRONTRUNNER
The Big East conference schedule is young, and if this league is known for anything, it’s a wild conference race filled with twists and turns. Maybe the Bearcats’ 2-0 start in the league will end up a blip on the radar screen. But they are playing well and the offense is very well balanced, with Zach Collaros leading a strong passing game that isn’t overly dependent on one particular receiver and Isaiah Pead being one of the Big East’s top running backs. Cincy will be able to score with anyone.
Whether they win the conference championship and its attendant BCS bid will depend on the defense. Even if we discount an early loss at Tennessee, as representing a caliber of football no Big East team is realistically going to match, the Bearcats have still played three notable opponents and twice had their secondary scorched. South Florida’s B.J. Daniels threw for over 400 yards in last Saturday’s narrow 37-34 UC win. And back on September 22, N.C. State’s Mike Glennon hung 334 yards on the board. That’s a lot of yards to quarterbacks who haven’t otherwise lit up the stat sheet.
Butch Jones’ team has a bye on Saturday and can prepare for five straight league games that will finish their season. Given the problems with the pass defense, the worst matchup will come up Thanksgiving weekend when they go up to the Carrier Dome to play Ryan Nassib and Syracuse. The other two road games are Pitt and Rutgers, neither of whom has the passing game to really exploit Cincy’s weaknesses. West Virginia and UConn have to come to the banks of the Ohio River.
This race could be won any of seven teams, with only South Florida (ironically the only league team who did anything in non-conference play when they beat Notre Dame) being out of it at 0-3. Consistency will count for more than focusing on any one particular opponent and I really like Collaros and Pead to keep the offense going, and for as much as I’ve panned the pass coverage unit, the run defense has been respectable. I think Cincinnati finds a way to win four of those five games and land a major bowl spot, likely the Orange.