Cincinnati has always faced issues of legitimacy.
They struggle (sometimes embarrassingly so) during (enter day of the week) night football games and fail to prove themselves as legitimate postseason contenders. Despite the narrative that hammers Cincinnati's offense, the defense owns equal shares in the equity of broken promises. It's not you. It's me. No, just kidding. It's totally you.
Things have changed.
The Bengals are 4-0 for the first time since 2005 -- an achievement reached only four times in franchise history. After opening the season at 6-0 in 1975, Cincinnati (11-3) buried themselves during a first-round playoff exit against the Raiders. Cincinnati went 6-0 again in 1988, reaching the Super Bowl, and started 4-0 in 2005, where we learned that Cincinnati's Super Bowl bid was only as strong as Palmer's knee ligaments.
It just feels different this year.
Andy Dalton is more... confident (appropriate). Surrounded by healthy weapons, armed with an offensive coordinator who's more familiar with the limits of his players, Dalton is piecing together his best season. The confidence is there. So is his trust with the offensive line. The production with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, arguably the league's most threatening running back tandem -- at least through the goggles of a fanatic -- helps. In addition to the on-field production and symbolic leadership handoff, Dalton is vocally active, talking with players and yelling when the need calls for it.
"It's his offense and he's taking control," Jackson said in August. "I don't think he's playing around with it." Center Russell Bodine struggled with a handful of snaps during training camp. "Russell", Dalton yelled. "We can't keep doing that. We can't keep talking about it."
Bodine, who attributed his issues to a change in technique, hasn't fumbled an exchange this season and was, at one point, one of Pro Football Focus' top centers -- his struggles against Baltimore's Brandon Williams disintegrated those reviews.
It's not just Dalton.
Domata Peko has had a strong start, holding his own during the point of attack and accumulating a pair of sacks last week against Kansas City. Geno Atkins has gone from rehabilitation expert to a level of lethality that Dungeons and Dragons can't even calculate. Yes, Dre Kirkpatrick hasn't had a good start this season but Adam Jones has been tremendous and Leon Hall equally as steady. Most of all, Paul Guenther is becoming comfortable as a playcaller. Offensively, Tyler Eifert, having spent a year as Jermaine Gresham's apprentice and then a year on the sidelines with an assortment of injuries, is making an impression.
Is this THE year for Cincinnati to forcefully answer their critics?
Cincinnati is 4-0 against teams with a combined 6-10 record and not a single winning percentage among them. Seattle and Buffalo, both resting at 2-2, will conclude Cincinnati's schedule before their Week 7 bye. Following that, it's a date in Pittsburgh and then four primetime contests over Cincinnati's final nine games. The questions of legitimacy demand an answer, and they will be answered. In the meantime, Seattle, who nearly became the first franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowl since Denver, will be a significant test for Cincinnati who craves symbolic wins.
Is this year different?
It feels that way.
Yet, those criticisms against the Bengals haven't surfaced this season because the scenarios haven't warranted vicious grades. Primetime, postseason, games against great teams, these are all questionable scenarios that could really advance the "everything has changed" narrative.
Is this year different?
I'll say this: When playing teams like Seattle, or any postseason/primetime game, my incurable anxiety crochets my nerves into a tangled mess. Maybe that changes this year. Entering a game, it feels like Cincinnati exhibits more attitude, swagger and confidence and that's clearly eased my anxiety. Maybe that's because of Dalton, who knows. I didn't boo him at the Celebrity All Star Game but maybe I should have... knowing now that it made him stronger than ever before.
"I'm not going to tell you it didn't bother him," said Jackson. "It did. When you have the success he has had—four seasons in the league, four times in the playoffs—getting booed in your own city, that has to hurt a bit. But he was able to hit one over the fence for a home run. And he flipped the bat. His message was sort of, You might not like me now, but you're going to love me later."