While there's still five weeks left in the regular season, many NFL teams and players are starting to peek ahead to the postseason.
For the 9-2 Bengals, they look primed for another AFC North crown and at least one home playoff game. They're also more focused on building their resume for the playoffs and making sure they're playing their best football when it matters most.
While the offense has been lights out much of the year, it's been the defense surging at the right time. This week, the Bengals' defense is coming off a dominating performance against the Rams. As Domata Peko told Geoff Hobson, they want people talking about this Bengals team because of how they're playing and what they're proving they can do on the field.
"That’s what we want to do every week. We want people talking about us," Peko said after the Bengals' win on Sunday. "Not about what we say, but what we do on the field, by our actions. How we play. I think today, people will be talking. We put our resume out there today and we let our work speak for itself."
After holding the Rams to just seven points Sunday, the Bengals now have the league's top-ranked scoring defense at just 17.5 points per game allowed. A big reason why is the unit has allowed 10 or fewer points in four of their last five games. They're playing like one of the NFL's best defenses, but Carlos Dunlap wants it to be 'the' best.
"We’ve got a chip on our shoulder,’ said Dunlap. "We want to be the best defense in the league. We wanted to prove a point."
Another area on defense where Cincinnati ranks high is interceptions. They're tied for the third-most of any team with 14 picks through 11 games after grabbing 20 in each of the previous two seasons. A big reason why is safety Reggie Nelson's NFL-high six picks after grabbing another on Sunday while in the midst of a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
"They say number don’t lie," Adam Jones told Bengals.com of Nelson. "He’s doing well. He’s staying high. The corners are doing a good job of getting the receivers off the spot, and the guys up front are doing a good job rushing."
Nelson knows having a great front seven and other great defensive backs makes his job a lot easier.
"My front seven, my D-line, they make it easy when they get pressure," Nelson said. "That’s what I mean about team defense. He has to get the ball out of his hand quickly. I don’t do anything. I just sit back there and save touchdowns. That’s my job."
Fellow safety George Iloka is also giving credit where credit is due after he too picked off Rams quarterback Nick Foles on Sunday. It was his first interception of the season.
"They were killing it," Iloka said of the front four. "When they’re getting pressure, creating havoc, for us in the back end it makes things easier. We don’t have to be back there scrambling with the receivers. They do a great job keeping the quarterback in the pocket and that allowed us to keep our eyes on the quarterback."
The man leading that charge is Geno Atkins, who's quietly (outside of Cincinnati at least) having an All-Pro caliber season that should have him at or near the top of Defensive Player of the Year discussions. That's what defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to see of his star player less than a year after calling Atkins "just a guy out there."
"Maybe we haven't talked about it enough, but I said earlier in the season he should be in that conversation," Guenther said of Atkins in the DPOY discussion, via ESPN's Coley Harvey. "He's done nothing not to be in there."
Atkins is the kind of player opposing teams have to spend extra time game-planning for, and more often than not, they still end up getting embarrassed by him.
"You ask anybody on [an opposing] offense, any offense that we play. The first guy when they turn the tape on Monday morning and they look at the tape to prepare for us, they say, 'Oh s---, we better have a plan for this guy," Guenther said of Atkins.
Speaking of, game-planning is a lot easier for Guenther when he has one of the best defensive players in football. In today's pass-happy NFL, having a defense that can get pressure with just four guys is critical to allowing more defenders to drop into coverage and not get picked apart by a quarterback who's not getting pressured.
"You don't have to have the eight-man fronts, you don't have to draw up a whole bunch of new blitzes," Guenther told Coley Harvey. "You maybe want to get him one-on-one, just how you get him isolated on a guy in a pass rush, or use him some way to get another guy free."
As loud as Atkin's play is on the field, he's one of the quietest players you'll see after the whistle has blown. Whether it's a big stop or a sack, Atkins just gets up, goes back to the huddle and waits for the next play.
"His drive and his desire to help the football team is pretty clear," Marvin Lewis said of Atkins. "Geno, as you guys seem to know, is a man of very few words. But when he says things he means it. He's very convicted to those things. You can trust what he's going to give you."
Nelson says you'll need some luck to crack Atkins. "Geno is not saying anything to anybody," Nelson told reporters this week. "Geno is walking back to the huddle and lining up and ready to do it again. He won't even smile at you. Good luck."
There's no longer any question that this Bengals team is the best one Lewis has ever coached, and the defense is a big reason why. Sure, the Bengals' 2005 club was elite, but they didn't have a defense remotely close to how good this 2015 team's defense is playing. It also helps that this year's offense is slowly getting to the same level that 2005 team reached, too.
The Bengals have shown flashes of becoming the type of team that could be fully capable of winning a Super Bowl.