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What we learned during the Bengals’ Week 9 bye

While the Bengals were off, things went just about as well as you could hope... if you’re a Cincinnati fan.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

We’re midway through the longest stint without Bengals football of the 2016 season, and though the Bengals are coming off a tie with a 3-4-1 record to show for a disappointing first half of the season, there’s plenty to be excited about. Here’s what we learned from the Bengals’ week off:

The AFC North is still up for grabs.

If you’re a Bengals fan, you probably couldn’t help but smile after watching Sunday’s matchup between the Steelers and Ravens. Neither team looked good, but both teams did a good job of making their opponent look good. The Ravens, led by (and I only say led because he’s the quarterback and, by default, a team leader) an inconsistent Joe Flacco couldn’t move the ball down the field against an undermanned Steelers defense missing its top corner, William Gay. In the first half, the Ravens muffed two potential scores by knocking themselves out of field goal range on a holding penalty and turning the ball over on a terrible Flacco interception. It took a huge play by Mike Wallace, turning a simple slant route into a 95-yard touchdown, for the Ravens to finally separate themselves from Pittsburgh. The game also saw a miserable performance from the Steelers offense as Antonio Brown was held in check (one catch, five yards in the first half) while Le’Veon Bell couldn’t get anything going in the ground game all game (14 rushes, 32 yards, 2.3 yards per carry). Ben Roethlisberger had a terrible game (and probably shouldn’t have been playing in the first place), completing just 23 of 45 attempts for 264 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. If not for multiple dropped missed interceptions by the Ravens, Roethlisberger’s performance could’ve looked even worse.

The Ravens (4-4) and Steelers (4-4) are only a half game ahead of the Bengals (3-4-1), so the AFC North is still completely up-for-grabs.

The Steelers’ offense isn’t the elite unit we all thought it would be.

The Ravens oftentimes triple-teamed Brown on Sunday with two defensive backs and a linebacker, leaving Sammie Coates in single-coverage and giving Bell room to run — yet despite this, Pittsburgh couldn’t take advantage. Since he ran all over Kansas City in his first game back from suspension, Bell has only generated 232 yards on 66 carries (with a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry). His longest run over that timespan went for just 13 yards. Granted, Bell’s receiving numbers have made his season look better, but the running back has yet to score a touchdown in 2016.

Opponents seem to understand what needs to be done to stop the Steelers — shut down Brown, using as many defenders as necessary, and wait for Bell to make his first move. Bell’s patience as a runner cannot be overstated, but it’s as much a curse as it is a blessing. If opponents don’t over pursue and force the back to make the first move, rather than blowing contain in an attempt to generate a tackle for loss, the running back more often than not ends up getting swarmed behind the line of scrimmage. The Ravens seemed to understand this on Sunday, forcing Bell to make the first move. Hopefully the Bengals study this game hard to understand what they need to do to defeat both of these teams in the three games ahead against their division foes this season.

The AFC Wild Card hunt is competitive as ever.

A week ago, I was convinced the AFC West would beat itself up to the point that a Wild Card berth would be possible for a 9-win Bengals team. After Week 9, I’m not so sure. All four AFC West teams, despite their flaws, are strong enough to sweep their remaining non-division opponents and make the playoffs, even if they struggle within the division. It appears as though the best way to get into the playoffs would be by winning the AFC North with the AFC West as competitive as it is and three of the teams in that division having six or more wins through Week 9.

The Bengals need to start winning, still.

As much as we talk about the weaknesses of the AFC North, the Bengals haven’t played up to their ability this season. While Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both on cold streaks, they’re both capable of winning the winnable games on their schedule (though Pittsburgh’s winnable games seem to come against more difficult opponents rather than against bad teams). It will take consistency from Andy Dalton, continued dominance from A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, as well as improvements in the run game, for the Bengals to start tallying wins. Fortunately, the Bengals’ schedule appears to be fairly favorable.

Cincinnati’s upcoming opponents are all beatable teams.

The Giants may be riding a three-game win streak, but their run game is the NFL’s worst and their defense is beatable both on the ground and through the air. Odell Beckham and the rest of New York’s pass-catchers have talent, but they’re one of the more inconsistent receiver groups in the NFL.

The Bills are a scary team on paper, but they’ll need to get healthy to have a real shot at beating Cincinnati. Buffalo might just be the best team Cincinnati faces in the next five weeks.

The Ravens are a very beatable team, as evidenced in Cincinnati’s dominance over Baltimore in recent years. If the Bengals consider themselves playoff contenders, they’ll need to take care of Baltimore like they’ve done in years past.

The Eagles got off to a hot start, but it appears as though things are slowly falling apart. Teams are starting to get the best of Carson Wentz, while Philadelphia’s defense has underperformed as of late. Philly still has a good football team, but it’s inconsistent at the very least.

There’s also another matchup with the Browns. And as always with the Browns, this is a game the Bengals cannot afford to lose if they’re considering playing in January. Being the team the Browns beat in 2016 is not a title the Bengals can afford to have.

Matchups with the Steelers, Texans and Ravens in the final three weeks of Cincinnati’s season could be the ones which dictate whether the Bengals are serious contenders or pretenders this year. But at the very least, the strongest opponents remaining on the Bengals’ schedule aren’t great teams (like the ones they’ve already faced in the Patriots and Cowboys).