With four games left, the Cincinnati Bengals are 10-2 and look poised to have the kind of finish that makes this a season to remember.
That's because this is one of the most balanced teams in franchise history thanks to the emergence of the defense over the past two months. The offense has been red-hot all season, but the defense is finally catching up and playing at just as high of a level.
In five of the past six games, Cincinnati has held opponents to 10 points or less. In two wins over the Browns, the Bengals have allowed a total of 13 points while forcing two turnovers and sacking Cleveland quarterbacks six times. In the past two weeks in wins over the Browns and St. Louis Rams, Cincy has allowed just 10 points while forcing five turnovers.
All of this has helped the Bengal take over the top ranking in scoring defense while allowing just 16.3 points per game this season. More impressively, they now rank 11th in total yards allowed per game (337.5) after hovering in the 20s for much of the first two months of this season.
The Bengals' defensive line is on a tear right now. They played a big role in holding Cleveland to three points while intercepting Austin Davis once, sacking him three times and recovering a fumble. Coley Harvey notes how Cincinnati is doing this while getting great pressure from just four defensive linemen:
According to ESPN Stats & Information, only three times this season have the Bengals blitzed more than 10 times in a game. Across the past six games, in which they've allowed just 12.3 points, the Bengals have blitzed an average 7.8 times.
By comparison, Denver's top-ranked defense has averaged 14.3 blitzes in that stretch. Sure, it works for the Broncos, but the Bengals' approach has produced results, too. Sacks are up for the entire line this season, and Atkins and Peko already have more than twice as many quarterback hurries as they had a year ago. Interceptions also are higher for the Bengals' secondary, which is taking advantage of the line's pressure. The Bengals have picked off passes in each of the past four games.
Everyone expected Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap to have good years, but what's making this defensive line even better is the impact Domata Peko is making. A 10-year veteran nose tackle, Peko has rarely even sniffed opposing quarterbacks as he's not offered much as a pass-rusher.
But this year, Peko is already up to a career-high four sacks with four games left to be played.
"I think it's all the hard work I put in every offseason and just keep working my hands," Peko said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "After I made my first sack I told Mike (Johnson), Geno (Atkins) and (Carlos) Dunlap I take a little bit from each one of you and try to learn from each one of you guys."
What made Sunday's performance even more impressive was the Bengals did it while playing a host of rookies and lesser-used player on defense. Shawn Williams filled in for George Iloka at safety. Rookies Josh Shaw and Troy Hill both played significant snaps at corner. Rookie P.J. Dawson also got some good run at linebacker.
Despite all of this, the Bengals' defense stifled the Browns for all four quarters.
"The young kids played really well. They paid attention to detail," said cornerback Adam Jones, via Bengals.com. "Josh played really good, Troy played really good. It was good for us."
Head coach Marvin Lewis was also happy to see his young players get their feet wet.
"With our injuries eight rookies suited up today," Lewis said. "Eight of our draft picks, which was great for them to get some playing time and an opportunity for them to get out there and play today. It was a good opportunity for them, and I thought the other guys raised their level, which was what we needed with the guys out that we had out today to raise the level around the rest of the football team. I was proud of that."
Leadership is also what's helped this defense become so good, as linebacker Vontaze Burfict noted.
"We have so many leaders, so much depth," said Burfict. "Adam (Jones) can relate to his corner. I can relate to Paul Dawson. They watch us during practice."
As good as this defense is, they continue to be critical of themselves and look for things to improve upon, even during Sunday's 37-3 demolition of the Browns.
"Our goal was to keep them out of field-goal range," Burfict said. "We knew it was going to be tough for them to score on us. We just wanted to get them out of field-goal range. I was kind of upset they got that field goal at halftime. It’s a little harder when teams are running a hurry-up. Just more mistakes for them and us. I’m kind of upset they got three points."
Taking the business as usual approach and worrying about only themselves has helped the Bengals demolish inferior Browns and Rams teams in the past two weeks.
"We knew coming in here that they had a tough loss last week," Peko said. "We're not going to let their problems be our problems. We come into every game thinking we're going to win. Our team right now is playing with high confidence and that's what we want to see. It was great to go out here and take care of business."
All of this has helped power the Bengals into the top spot in the AFC standings, giving them the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they began today. While there's still a lot of football left to be played, this Bengals team continues to look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender and maybe, the team to beat in the AFC.