Heading into Week 5, the Bengals are sitting firmly at 2-2 on the season. With tough losses coming against the Steelers and Broncos, and stabilizing wins against the Jets and Dolphins, The Bengals generally look regressed from their 2015 form. Granted, with only two losses on the season, there is still a mathematical chance that the Bengals could end up with a better record than last year. But, given how they’ve played so far, it is tough to see that happening.
However, that does not mean the season is lost. The Bengals had a particularly impressive 2015 season that tied for the best regular season record in franchise history. At this point, the team will likely be fighting for the opportunity to go to the playoffs with a Wild Card seed, though, anything can happen between now and the end of Week 17.
The Bengals could turn things around and end up coming back for the division title. As of right now, they are only one game behind the Steelers and Ravens. The Ravens just lost to the Oakland Raiders this Sunday, so they appear to be vulnerable. The Steelers absolutely dominated two of their three non-Bengals opponents. But, don’t forget they only beat the Bengals by eight points in Week 2 and were absolutely annihilated by the Eagles in Week 3 by a score of 34-3.
From now until the bye week, the Bengals actually have a relatively easy schedule. Their first three weeks were a tough, and included two road games against some of the best teams in the AFC. But, from Week 4 until the Week 9 bye, the Bengals have an opportunity to get their season firmly on track.
They already took out their frustration on the lowly Dolphins on Thursday to even their record back up to .500. Next up is the 3-1 Cowboys in Dallas. It could be a tough one as Dak Prescott and the Cowboys are one of the biggest surprises so far this season. But, the Cowboys have a very exploitable run defense and an offense that has run the ball well, but rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of passing yards. In terms of passing touchdowns, they’re all the way at the bottom with three.
A win over the Cowboys should give the Bengals confidence heading into their Week 6 excursion to New England. Given the way they’ve played so far this season, it’s hard to see the Bengals going into Foxborough and taking down a Patriots team that will have Tom Brady back. That same team ranks No. 3 in rushing offense (135.5 yards per game, five touchdowns) and No. 4 in scoring defense (61 points allowed). If the Bengals can really turn things around offensively, there’s a chance they can upset the Patriots. But, if things remain relatively the same, I wouldn’t expect much out of this game for the Bengals.
In Weeks 7 and 8, the Bengals return home to face the lowly Browns and then travel to London to play the Redskins. They should be able to take care of business in both of those games, as they did against the Dolphins. At this point, if things go right, the Bengals could be heading into the bye week with a record of 5-3 and a win in the AFC North. It’s hard to say exactly what the Steelers and Ravens will be looking like at that point, but I think it’s safe to say the Bengals won’t be any more than two games behind either team if they head into the bye week 5-3.
The second half of the season could be even tougher than the first. The Bengals play the Ravens twice, the Steelers once, and the division leading Texans and Eagles. The Bengals haven’t lost to the Ravens since November 10, 2013. So, providing what we saw against Miami is replicable going forward, I wouldn’t immediately dismiss the possibility of the Bengals winning both of those games. At the same time, in Week 15, an improved Bengals team could take down the Steelers in Cincinnati. Throw in 3-4 wins from the rest of their games after the bye and that puts the Bengals squarely at a record of 11-5 or 12-4, easily a division winning record with a sweep over the Ravens and a split with the Steelers. They would likely be looking at a No. 3 or 4 seed at that point. But, most Bengals fans would take that after the slow start to the 2016 season.
However, there are so many barriers to the Bengals improving enough to be able to finish as strong as 11-5 this season. As promising of a future as it seems the Bengals have with all of their new weapons and coaches, there has been an undeniable learning curve. You can clearly see it in the passing game alone. The Bengals have the passing talent to exploit an opposing defense between the pylons, ranking No. 3 in total yards (1,164). But, once it comes time to toss the ball into the endzone, their inexperience is hurting them, ranking at the bottom of the NFL with the Cowboys in terms of passing touchdowns (three).
That inexperience could easily haunt them through the rest of the season. If it does, those 2-3 potential losses through the rest of the season could easily turn into 4-5. Dropping one game to the Ravens and another one to the Steelers will essentially destroy their chances of winning the division.
Luckily, the Bengals do have a win over two conference opponents. But, the Jets and Dolphins do not appear to be poised to end up fighting for a playoff spot this year. Their primary competition for the Wild Card spot right now are the Steelers, Raiders, Chiefs, and Bills. The Bengals will play the Steelers and Bills later this season, but won’t get a shot at the Raiders and Chiefs. Wins over the Steelers and Bills should help their Wild Card chances, but they will need to start playing better soon if they want to secure even the No. 6 seed.