No matter how you're currently looking at it, the Cincinnati Bengals are currently in the thick of the AFC playoff picture at 3-3. Even though they are coming off of two consecutive disappointing losses, they share the same record as the Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers (yes, I know they're an NFC team). Conversely, they also share the same the record as seemingly struggling teams like the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams. Go figure.
While this is the time of year where things can get congested and things work themselves out in the next few weeks, we still don't know which direction that the Bengals will head in for the rest of the year. Over the past six weeks, we've seen the good (Week Four against the Jaguars), the bad (Week Five against the Dolphins), and the ugly (Weeks One and Six against AFC North foes in the Ravens and Browns), so what is coming down the pike next?
It has been well-chronicled how difficult the second half of the Bengals' season appears. Josh Kirkendall touched on this in one of his videos recently, but if they are to continue to make a run at the playoffs for the second consecutive year, they will need to take a collective look into the mirror and find out exactly who they are. We're not talking about the character of this team per se, as we know that the roster is comprised of quality young men. The major issue might lie within the "young" adjective.
When you look back at the team over the past six games, what about the Bengals stands out as a strength of the team? You definitely can't look at things objectively and call this an effective offense when running the football. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was brought in to remedy the shortcomings that Cedric Benson exhibited over the previous four years and there hasn't been a noticeable improvement. While he has converted what seems to be more short-yardage conversions than Benson, there have been the troubles that have continued on the early downs that put the offense in difficult positions for potential third down conversions. Hence the team's horrible third down conversion rate this season.
You could say that the defense is something that has been a constant, but they've given up 116 points to three different rookie quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill, respectively) and are 2-2 in those four games. Additionally, the team's defense has only caused seven turnovers in six games--only two of which were interceptions and none have been by cornerbacks. They are one of the top units in the NFL in sacking the quarterback, but that isn't having that much of an impact if it isn't causing turnovers.
I suppose that one could argue that the team's strength is their passing offense. Given Andy Dalton's statistical career year on the horizon and A.J. Green asserting himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL, that would be an easy conclusion to come to. Still, a lot of the stats and points have come from "playing catch-up" and/or were in garbage time. Take Dalton's stats from last Sunday as an example: a career-high 381 yards, three touchdowns and three crucial interceptions. Throw in the struggles on third down, and you have yourself a recipe for trouble. The aforementioned running game that has been struggling hasn't helped Dalton, as the offense has had to rest entirely on his right shoulder.
With three games left against the AFC North, three against the NFC East, and four against the AFC West, the Bengals had better figure out just who they are fast. They seem to do a number of different things adequately, but there's very little that they truly excel at. If one were to take a stab at it right now, I'd say that getting better on third down on both sides of the ball is a good place to start. The Bengals have been atrocious on offense when facing third downs, so getting better there is a must. On defense, they are decent at getting off the field, but it's more of an issue of holding their ground at critical times. Finding that clutch gene is something that they must do.
Doing rough math, the Bengals will need to finish 7-3 the rest of the way to ensure themselves a playoff spot. Given the current parity in the league, 6-4 might get them in with a 9-7 finish for the second consecutive year, but that isn't something that they can hang their hat on. If they are to go on that type of run, the coaches and players need to figure out who they are, what they do best and then employ that in the gameplan.