The Cincinnati Bengals have hit the quarter season post with a record that many prognosticators didn't see coming. At 3-1, the Bengals have placed themselves in a tie, thanks to the Baltimore Ravens losing to New England, with the Ravens for the division lead. That leaves the game next week in Baltimore looking even larger than expected.
Through the years, the Bengals have started slow out of the gates and then finished with a flurry after their fate had been decided, usually winning the final 3 or 4 games of the season to gain some respectability. On a rare occasion, including this year, the Bengals have started out fast causing everyone to stand up and take notice. But how do they fare as the grind of the season continues? Do they carry the momentum from the quick start through the season, or do they falter and find themselves working on their golf game and planning their vacations in early January?
The more recent 3-1 start for the Bengals was the 2006 season. After setting the world on fire by winning the division and making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years the year before, they started out to meet the expectations to repeat as division champs and make the playoffs for the second consecutive year, which has never happened in franchise history. After winning the first 3 game of the season, they lost to New England in a Sunday night game, which sent them stumbling through the rest of way winning only 5 of the remaining 12 games finishing 8-8. However, injuries to several key people could be a contributor to the Bengals season falling short of expectations.
The 2005 season saw the fast start propel the team to good things. The Bengals won the first 4 games of the season before losing in week 5 to the Jaguars in Jacksonville. But that loss had no effect on the team as they continued on to an 11-5 record and the franchise's first division title since 1990. With two weeks to go in the season and the division title in hand with an 11-3 record, the Bengals decided to rest their starters for the final two games. This decision resulted in consecutive losses to end the regular season, preventing them from finishing with a franchise best 13-3 record. Of course we know the outcome of the playoff game so I won't go into that expect to say that over the past few years since that game, I have talked to a number of Pittsburgh Steeler fans who admitted to me that had Carson not gone down with the injury, the Bengals would have won the game. I digress.
Prior to the 2005 division championship, 1990 was the last time the Bengals started the season 3-1 or better winning the first three games of the season before losing to the Seattle Seahawks in week 4. The Bengals then cruised for the rest of the year to finish 9-7 and division title. They went on to win the Wild Card game against the Houston Oilers 41-14 but lost to the Los Angeles Raiders (when they were good) 20-10.
After suffering the franchises second loss in the Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49er's, the 1989 season had a belief that a fast start would be just what was needed to get the Bengals back to the Promised Land. After losing the first game of the 1989 season, they won the next 4 games to post a 4-1 record before losing the next two and then sputtering to a disappointing 8-8 record. This record is not indicative of how potent the offense was as they outscored the opposition 404-285. The Boomer Esiason lead offense scored 40 or more points 4 times that year including a 61-7 beating of the Houston Oilers. Despite the high powered offense, the defense was unable to keep the opposition from squeaking out victories against them preventing the Bengals from making the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The 1988 season started off with the Bengals winning the first 6 games of the season before losing to New England in week seven. They went on to win the 6 of the final 9 games to finish 12-4, completing one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history after suffering through a 4-11 season in 1987. The fast start not only propelled them to a division title, but after beating Seattle and the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs, they made their second appearance in the Super Bowl against the 49'ers.
The 1981 season was the first year the loved/hated Bengals stripes were introduced on the uniform. You could draw the conclusion that the new uniforms could have provided the inspiration for the team that finished 6-10 the season before. The first four games of the season the Bengals started out 3-1 with team going on to win 9 of the next 12 games winning the division title. But unlike the other playoff appearances in the 1970's, this team led by Ken Anderson made the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance beating Buffalo and then the Dan Fouts led San Diego Chargers in what is considered the freezer bowl. Temperatures' were measured at -9 degrees with a wind chill factor of -59!!! I was in Columbus (my hometown) at the time, and that is when I grew a hatred for cold weather.
The 70's provided a number of seasons when the Bengals started fast either at 3-1 or 4-0 for the first 4 games, 1971 and 1973-76. Only twice did the Bengals make the playoffs which were the 1973 and 1975 seasons after finishing with a 10-4 record. The 1976 season produced a 10-4 record as well but the Bengals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the division title due to a tie breaker and did not qualify for a wild card spot (there was only one at that time) as New England finished with an 11-3 record finishing ahead of the Bengals for that spot. After the fast start for the 1971 season, the team finished a disappointing 7-7.
So what does all this mean? Fast starts usually propel the Bengals into the playoffs, and on a couple of occasions, to the Super Bowl. Only two seasons since 1980 did the Bengals start fast and then not make the playoffs. Both of those seasons they started hot and faded down the road. The 2006 season was looking like a playoff repeat of 2005 as they carried an 8-5 record heading into the last three games of the year, which they lost due to injuries to key players. In 1989 after starting 4-1, the Bengals fell to 5-5 after week 10 and then split the final 6 games of the season at 3-3.
So what will this season's outcome be? Since the franchise has been around, they have never finished below .500 after making a fast start. Most of the fast starts have resulted in the Bengals qualifying for the playoffs at a minimum, and on occasion, landing in the Super Bowl. Couple the fast start with a favorable schedule, this could be a season that has been duplicated only twice in the 40 year existence of our beloved Bengals.