Nearly everyone was ready to give the Cincinnati Bengals’ season up for lost after the disappointing 24-20 defeat by the Tennessee Titans in Week 10. My, how things have changed.
Since then, Cincinnati has put together a two-game winning streak and take a record of 5-6 into Monday night’s showdown with the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers.
More importantly, those two wins have vaulted the Bengals back into the conversation for a playoff berth, and there are at least three reasons why Cincinnati may just be able to pull off another postseason appearance.
1. Only one game out
Despite everything that has happened, despite a three-game losing streak and another two-game losing streak, the Bengals are only one game out of a Wild Card playoff berth.
The two teams that are currently in line to be the AFC’s representatives in the Wild Card games are the Buffalo Bills, who moved to 6-5 with a win over Kansas City Sunday, and the Baltimore Ravens, who are currently 5-5 entering Monday night’s game against the Houston Texans.
The Bengals and the Chargers are the next two teams up with records of 5-6, and Houston owns a 4-6 record going into its game against the Ravens. Cincinnati currently has the tiebreaker edge over the Chargers as the Bengals are 5-5 in the AFC, while the Chargers are 3-5. Both teams are 2-2 in their respective divisions.
Baltimore, on the other hand, has a 4-3 record in the Conference and is 2-1 in the AFC North. The Texans are currently 3-4 in the Conference and 1-2 in its Division, the AFC South.
2. Offensive line play
After being universally recognized as one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and one of the worst offensive lines in the history of the Bengals’ franchise, things are finally beginning to move in the right direction.
Through seven games, the Bengals’ line had allowed quarterback Andy Dalton to be sacked 22 times, and were on pace to allow 50 sacks. In the three full games that Andre Smith has started at right tackle after the loss of Jake Fisher, the Bengals’ line has only allowed four sacks.
Despite that improvement in pass protection, the running game continued to struggle. Coming into Sunday’s game against Cleveland, Joe Mixon ranked dead last among starting running backs with an average yards-per-carry of 2.9.
Against the Browns, who came in as the sixth-best team in the NFL against the rush after allowing an average of just 91.7 yards per game, the line finally started opening up holes. And Mixon finally began running decisively. The combination was a good one as Mixon went over 100 yards for the first time in his career, and finished with 114 yards on 23 carries while scoring his fourth touchdown of the year on the ground. As a team, the Bengals racked up 152 yards rushing on 30 carries.
3. Bengals getting healthy
Probably the best news for the Bengals is that they seem to be getting healthy just when it matters the most. Cincinnati had only two current starters out with injuries this week, with both Shawn Williams and Vincent Rey dealing with hamstring issues.
While both Williams and Rey are integral parts of the Bengals’ defense, their absence has allowed backups such as Clayton Fejedelem and Jordan Evans to get more playing time. And that experience can only help down the stretch. Evans was the team’s second-leading tackler Sunday with seven total tackles, including five solos, and Fejedelem finished with six tackles and a quarterback hit.
When Williams and Rey do make their returns, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will have even more options as he tries to find ways to return Cincinnati’s defense to the lofty heights it once enjoyed.
Nowhere is that health more evident than on the defensive line, where the rotation of Michael Johnson, Carl Lawson, Chris Smith, Jordan Willis and Carlos Dunlap continues to wreak havoc on the opposition. Combine them with Geno Atkins in the middle and Cincinnati becomes one of the most feared units in the league.
In fact, through the first 10 games of the season, this group had accumulated 29 sacks and was in a tie for fifth most in the NFL. Lawson picked up 1.5 sacks Sunday to raise his season total to seven, Atkins, Smith and Dunlap each added one-half sack and Pat Sims added another sack to raise the overall number to 33 through 11 games.
Offensively, the Bengals have only lost two starters all year to injury. Tyler Eifert went down early, but Tyler Kroft has stepped up to fill the void. And Fisher was lost in the middle of the ninth game of the season, but Smith has proven to be more than an adequate replacement.
The bottom line is that the Bengals control their own destiny. Of the five remaining games, two are against division foes in Pittsburgh, which comes to Cincinnati next Monday night, and Baltimore, which is once again scheduled as the final game of the season.
In between, the Bengals have a pair of very winnable games at home against Chicago and Detroit. They go to Minnesota in Week 15 for another game against a Marvin Lewis disciple. Lewis and the Bengals are undefeated against former coaches, and if that trend continues, the postseason may still be in reach after all.