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The Bengals Big Picture: The Striped Surprise

Maybe the Broncos won't win the AFC. Maybe stranger things are afoot.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In the AFC, there is only one team truly qualified to win the Super Bowl. No others appear to have the firepower to hang with the Denver Broncos. To beat them, a team must score at least 30 points and hope for the best from their defense. As it is, only the Colts have showed the appropriate shootout ability to topple the Rocky Mountain titans and that feat seems too unlikely to ever repeat.

So there you have it; the season might as well be over.

We as a football nation are so thorough and so quick to dismiss every other possible contender that it seems Denver could just remove their starters for the remainder of the regular season, lose all five games, and still maintain their unbeatable status heading into January. Indianapolis and New England are good, but not good enough. The Chiefs had a fun go of things early on in the season, but despite a perfect record before falling at Mile High Stadium in Week 11, they were not really taken seriously by the football wizards at any point of the 2013 season.

That, of course, leaves the Cincinnati Bengals-a team so offensively inconsistent that those who follow the game don't even feel comfortable calling them decent. Forget the ghosts of the past that shackled the organization from legitimacy for so long-those days have now been mercifully shoved to the darkened corners of history books thanks to multiple postseason appearances. This team is being judged for this year and has so far earned something of a B- for the season.

A B- isn't bad for a lot of teams in the league. Whoever winds up gaining the last wild-card slot in the AFC is currently well below such a mark and isn't likely to end with that kind of respectable grade come playoff time. To be fifth best in a conference means that many things went well. In some years, it may mean a championship is attainable and within grasp, but many consider this year's Lamar Hunt trophy spoken for by Mr. Peyton Manning performing his best John Elway impression by retiring as a champion. The script is written; we are all expected to sit and watch it unfold as planned.

Yet, these are events acted out by human beings and we all know how badly things get screwed up when people get involved. As a species, humans are the party-crashers of expectation. They are unable to even sniff perfection; some would say they are born to fail. And even the greatest of our kind fail in spectacular fashion. Michael Jordan, the most epic of all the athletes, withered into an old mortal and one day met an end to his domination. Manning too has let us down time and time and time again. Every year, we are collectively mystified by his regular-season greatness. Every year, from September to December, we are washed over by the waves of praise directed at Peyton Manning. And then, ever so quickly, once his team loses in the playoffs, we are reminded that he is a human too, and we diminish his legacy until the following year.

So, just as humans are able to fail when they are expected to succeed, they also often pleasantly surprise us. Andy Dalton winning playoff games at this point would come as a surprise to most of us. He is mercurial, first up then down then up then down again. Against the Jets he looked problem-free, gliding the offense along like a schooner enjoying a steady wind. Since then, he has crumbled to bits and looks like a very average person trying to play quarterback in the NFL. It only takes a handful of bad throws to utterly ruin a game in such a position. Last weekend he threw a terrific pass to Jermaine Gresham for the team's first touchdown. It lofted perfectly into Gresham's hands while surrounded by three approaching Cleveland Browns. He had a few other throws of note, but it was the misses that tarnished the afternoon and left us all with a lingering off-putting taste in our mouths.

He cannot be only average to placate our desire to see the team win meaningful playoff games. Those around him-his teammates-are better than him. This is a Super Bowl defense, a Super Bowl offensive line and a Super Bowl coaching staff. The organization, the players and the city are ready. This season, this team, has reached a high-water mark of relevancy compared to the last two decades. Yet its most important cog is performing adequately at best. The point has been belabored, I will lightly remove myself from such a worn-out soapbox, but the point has been made: he must be better or they lose again. Can he do it? He is a human being with tremendous untapped potential. Has he shown that he can do it? No.

But he is not completely alone with his shortcomings. In the recent dismal stretch for the offense, it seems the wide receivers have had a whale of a time getting open. Too many passes are too heavily contested and consequently Dalton's targets are asked to haul in tough-guy passes on a regular basis. A lot of these men are fairly tough individuals, but catching a football while an athletic person is draped upon one's back is simply a hard thing to do.

There are a lot of factors that are involved with this. Scheme and play design are first. Jay Gruden has done some impressive things with this offense. He has developed the likes of Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and even A.J. Green nicely. Andy Dalton is likely a better QB for playing under Gruden than he would under other coordinators. All in all, Gruden has been a success in Cincinnati. Now, though, it seems defenses are on to him.

The Jets played the Bengals with straight up man-to-man coverage and were roasted as a result. Since then, teams have gone zone, dropping linebackers back in coverage and daring Dalton to locate the open pockets. Perhaps the biggest criticism on Dalton is his inability to stay cool in the pocket and go through his proper reads. He panics easily, often flushes himself out of the pocket, or forces throws to his primary receiver. Sometimes, Gruden schemes to the point where it looks easy. At those times, Dalton plays the game as if it has been simplified for him. Gruden's brain allows this to happen.

When it's not as straight forward, however, things rapidly fall apart for the passing game, and eventually for the team as a whole. Once defenses adjust to the current scheme, there seems to be an extended lag before the Bengals can get back on track. The current lag of this kind is now into its third game and San Diego hopes it continues.

I think the receivers themselves have to take some blame as well for the recent struggles. A.J. Green pulling up a yard short on his comeback route on third down is not okay. Gresham dropping passes to the point that it makes him look stupid is not okay. No one able to run a decent screen pass is not okay. Pass catchers have a job to do too. Not every pass by even the greatest quarterback is guaranteed to always be on target; route running, blocking, and especially catching the ball have to be in sequence for good things to happen.

The running game has not blown anyone away so far this year, but it's hard to call it a major problem. I was most impressed last week when, in the second half and with a sizable lead, the Bengals showed their power formations, faced nine-man defensive fronts and still managed to drive down the field and score a touchdown by running the ball. I think the group as a whole drifts away from the ground game and becomes overly smitten with the west-coast passing game, but short runs when the defense knows it's coming has proven to be senseless as well, so who knows. Nonetheless, the passing game sets up the run for this team when maybe it should be the other way around.

The team has five games to show it can play with the big dogs. The last two years, the offense has lost a lot of steam in the stretch run and was easily bounced from the playoffs in the wild-card game. The late bye-week can only help this cause. Not only is it a chance for bruises to heal and pain to subside, it's a pause from the daily grind to allow the brain trust to zoom out and see the big picture. The trends and patterns, positive and negative, known and unknown, should hopefully come into focus for these men and they will make the appropriate adjustments. The current product shown off on Sundays has had impressive elements to it, but if the offense remains riddled by mistakes the same end result will rear its ugly head once more.

A little spark, a little optimism in San Diego a week from tomorrow will go a long way to make everyone feel more confident. Getting special teams and defensive touchdowns are terrific, but are rare and not to be relied on. The Bengals offense must stop killing itself and put more pressure on opposing defenses if it wants to even show up for a match against the Broncos this winter. A surprise of this nature would be most welcomed, but remains a surprise nonetheless.

Mojokong-the hectic skeptic.