Welcome To The Jungle: Are The Bengals For Real?
When the so-called “experts” made their pre-season predictions for the 2009-10 NFL season, teams like the Texans and 49ers were trendy sleeper picks. Not many people though (myself included), expected Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals to be 6-2 and in control of the AFC North at the midway point of the season. But somehow they are 4-0 in the division and only a fluke play against the Broncos and two late turnovers at home against the Texans away from being a perfect 8-0.
Coming into the season it was hard to believe Marvin Lewis still had a job. In his six full seasons as head coach, the Bengals had managed to finish with a winning record only once and had never won a playoff game. During his tenure, the Bengals were becoming more well known for their off the field problems then their play on it. Still the organization has stuck with him and it appears to be paying off.
Unfortunately, playing well for half the season doesn’t count for much and there are still many skeptics out there who are wondering if Cincy can possibly keep this run going. The answer to that question starts with the play of quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer missed 12 of the team’s games last season and has struggled with consistency during his six-year career. This year though, the USC grad has rebounded from a poor week one start against the Broncos and has amassed 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions since that game. More impressive than the stats has been the clutch play of Palmer. He has lead Cincinnati to three fourth quarter comeback victories and would have had a fourth if not for the Brandon Stokely TD reception in Week One. There was no way the team was going to keep winning that way though and Palmer and company have jumped all over their last two opponents, the Bears and Ravens, combining to outscore the two 48-3 in the first half.
Well Palmer has been rejuvinated this season, no player in the league has silenced critics more than wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. After demanding a trade on more than one occasion over the last two years, the outspoken wideout has already accumalated more than 600 yards receiving to go along with five touchdowns and 44 receptions. Apparently, playing for a winning team has changed Ochocinco’s outlook on playing in Cincinnati. And despite losing All-Pro T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Palmer has had no touble finding other targets (seven Bengals already have 10 or more catches this season).
While the passing game has been solid, that was never really the problem. For the first time in a long time, the Bengals have found some consistency from their running game and their defense, two categories that usually lead to postseason success. Coming into this week, the Bengals were already sixth in the NFL allowing just over 18 points per game. They were also 11th in rushing offense with Cedric Benson leading the league with 720 yards. This was supposed to be the week they were exposed as pretenders taking on the traditionally tough Ravens, but instead it was the Bengals who shut down the Ravens and ran the ball down their throat.
As we head into the second half of the season, the schedule sets up well for the Bengals’ run to continue. They have four games they should win against the Raiders, Browns, Lions and Chiefs and if they are able to pull off two wins in their other four games (against the Steelers, Vikings, Chargers and Jets) they would finish the season at 12-4 and would likely be headed to the postseason. These are all big ifs for an organization that has traditionally found a way to screw things up, but this year feels like it might be different. Then again, it would only take a few bad weeks for us all to start saying, “same old Bungles.”