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Though we could nitpick all day about the issues facing the Cincinnati Bengals, there's more than enough reason to be optimistic so far.
Three weeks of regular season does not provide any real declarative statements about an NFL team. Odds of a postseason may increase or decrease week to week this early in the season, but those odds are merely speculative. Regardless, the Bengals are currently in a division that is beginning to show trends. These trends are in their infancy stages, mind you, but the Bengals are certainly beginning to appear as though they are at least facing in the right direction.
Sure, there are obstacles this team must address and overcome. The Bengals secondary is a glaring cancer when considering what we’ve seen in three weeks. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer provided an improved front seven against Washington on Sunday, benefitted by a returning Carlos Dunlap. When your secondary hasn’t proven to keep the ball out of opposing receivers’ hands, pressuring the quarterback is an invaluable asset. Moving forward, the Bengals defense will be leaning heavily on their pass rush as they work to improve a struggling secondary.
Rey Maualuga has done nothing to intimidate anyone attacking the middle of the field and the opposition is capitalizing on his poor tackling and slow response to any receiver, running back, or tight end making themselves at home in his domain. The offensive line has been stout at times, but has fallen short irregularly to the point where it’s hard to truly identify who and what will falter at any given time.
But the point of this article is “optimism.” Why? Because, optimism as a Bengals fan is a very fragile trait. Because, when you let your guard drop, this team has historically been able to disappoint. Optimism does not come easily even during the best of times, which are yet to be fully realized this season. There are some “bests” happening on this Bengals squad, however. A.J. Green just posted his best career game with 183 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. Andy Dalton just posted his best career quarterback rating (132.9) against the Washington Redskins. The Bengals have had four receivers with over 50 yards in consecutive games. Jay Gruden is opening up his playbook, and it’s paying off. The Bengals defense recorded six sacks, greatly assisted by Michael Johnson - who had a career high of three sacks. A lot of the Bengals benchmark numbers this season came most recently against the Redskins, but the Redskins were the favorite to win during their first homestand of the season.
If you consider last season, the Bengals were 0-6 when an opposing team scored over 20 points in 2011. In other words, the Bengals did not win a single game unless an opponent scored 20 points or less. The Bengals offense has managed to beat two of the three teams they’ve faced so far in 2012, and not one opponent has scored less than 27 points. We’ve seen the Bengals fall apart late in games. The defense did get softer during the second half on Sunday. However, Andy Dalton put together a virtually flawless 4th quarter and currently has a 158.3 quarterback rating when combining his three 4th quarter performances this season. If there were any trend to put more stock into than others, it’s that Dalton is combating perception that the Bengals lose their fire after halftime.
True, the Bengals weren’t playing a Super Bowl contender last Sunday. If anything, maybe NFL insiders were giving the Redskins too much credit much too soon. Regardless, the Bengals put up a performance and took the win against a team that led the league in offensive scoring throughout the first two weeks of the season. In a league where the New Orleans Saints are 0-3 and the Arizona Cardinals are 3-0 while beating last season’s AFC Champions, there’s enough promise in this Bengals squad to think that they have the ability to become more than just a Wild Card team. The AFC North is far from being firmly commanded.
Obviously the Bengals have a long season ahead of them. Marvin Lewis’ mantra this season has been, “Start Fast” – a great mindset when taking the season week by week, which they absolutely must implore. I’d add a footnote to Marvin’s simple message: “Finish Strong.” If the Bengals continue performing the way they have while improving on the weaknesses they’ve already identified, they’ll win the games expected of them and finally win the games which many would doubt they’re capable of. This team must be ready to take over the AFC North, ready to finish strong.