NFL Analysis: Can Cincinnati Win The AFC North?

In the AFC North, the media oxygen is sucked up the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Cincinnati Bengals have quietly lurked and snuck into the postseason for two straight years. Last year the Bengals beat out the Steelers for that final AFC playoff spot, winning a big head-to-head game in Week 16. Cincy hasn’t been able to move out of the first round. Has their time finally come in 2013?

NFL analysis elsewhere in this division notes the question marks the Ravens have to overcome and the possibility that the Steelers might not be ready for an immediate turnaround. It’s fair to say that this year is certainly opportunity time for the Bengals.

It starts with the defensive front, where tackle Geno Atkins is one of the best in the game. When you have an interior lineman able to generate pressure on the quarterback, to the tune of 12 ½ sacks, you’re very hard to handle. Then add in Michael Johnson and his 11 ½ sacks. Cincinnati collapses pockets and stops the run, and that’s going to make them competitive each time out.

What we need to see from this team is better control of the line of scrimmage when they have the ball. The Cincinnati rush offense ranked 20th in the league in yards-per-rush, and I don’t think BenJarvus Green-Ellis alters any one’s game plans at the running back spot.

It’s not that Cincy can’t win with the running game at its current level—heck, they already are winning. But a strong rush game dovetails nicely with a physical defense and creates a stronger team identity, and that’s it will take for the Bengals to take the next step, be that winning the AFC North, advancing in the playoffs, or both.

I’d also like to see the secondary make more big plays. This unit ranks around the middle of the NFL in interceptions. When you have a defensive front that causes as much havoc as this one, that should create some opportunities for picks.

You will note I haven’t brought up Andy Dalton, even though current media form tells us to mention the quarterback ad nauseum in any NFL analysis. That’s because I think Dalton is largely irrelevant to this team’s success, at least so long as he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He made a few too many last year—throwing 16 interceptions—but he also found A.J. Green for some big plays and ended with a tolerable 87.4 QB rating. That’s good enough to allow the defense to win games.

The folks in Las Vegas have posted the Bengals’ Over/Under win prop at 8.5. I’m leaning Over. I think 10-6 is very doable, even 11-5 if they get a running game going and start to cash in more interceptions. Conversely, 8-8 is about the worst I can see, so long as the defensive front four stays healthy. The percentages point to the Over.

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