The Cincinnati Bengals are your current feel good story of the year. A young team, particularly on offense, for which no one had any expectations. You’ll probably see some people rank them in their top 10 in the Power Rankings this week off a “huge” 34-12 road win in Seattle. Frankly, I don’t think that’s justified if you look beyond the 5-2 record, as I will do here. I think the key here is that Mike Brown must have bartered one of his children in a deal with the devil before the season. I’m still working on sources to confirm.
So, why do I say that Cincinnati is not as good as that 5-2 record would seem to indicate? Let’s start with some of the scores, which at first glance would suggest they got several nice double digit wins against bad opponents. In reality, they played close games against bad opponents that were decided late, and then a combination of good plays by the Bengals, bad plays by the opponents, and some fluke scores have conspired to make those victories seem more impressive. Here’s a run down of the closing points in wins over some of the worst teams in the league:
- In Seattle, it was 20-12 with less than 4 minutes remaining. Cincinnati scored on a punt return for touchdown, and then ran an interception back 75 yards with about 45 seconds left to make the final score 34-12.
- Against Indianapolis, the score was 20-17 at home with under 3 minutes left when Pierre Garcon fumbled and Cincinnati returned it for a touchdown. I’ll remind you that in the two weeks since that game the Colts have been handled thoroughly by the Saints and Titans.
- Against the Jaguars, they took the lead 23-20 with a touchdown inside the 2 minute warning, then scored a touchdown on the last play of the game when Jacksonville tried several desperation laterals to end the game, one was fumbled, and returned for the touchdown.
- Against the Browns, they took the lead in the final minutes on a complete blown coverage where no one lined up on A.J. Green. Then, Cedric Benson scored on a late 39 yard touchdown when the Browns stacked the line and he busted through, when a first down alone would have iced the game.
- This team has scored touchdowns that had little to no impact in deciding games in some cases, but make the score line look more impressive for the casual AP voter. How many times have we seen a team lateral at the end of the game and it end harmlessly, or intercept a pass and go down to kill the rest of the clock, or fall on a fumble to end a game? The Bengals have been the Greatest Show on Turf in converting those plays into points late in games in recent weeks.
Easily the best win was a home triumph, 23-20, over Buffalo. That’s offset by the loss to Denver on the road, and the close wins over four teams I would put in the bottom quarter of the league. At this point, the 5-2 merely means they would make a bowl game if they played in a conference with the NFC West, Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
Then there’s the quarterbacks they have played. Cincinnati has allowed only 6 touchdown passes, and opponents are completing 57.6% of passes for 6.69 yards per attempt, and 3 interceptions, which looks solid. Here’s a list of the quarterbacks who have thrown a pass against Cincinnati this year:
- Colt McCoy
- Kyle Orton
- Alex Smith
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Blaine Gabbert
- Curtis Painter
- Charlie Whitehurst
- Tarvaris Jackson
So, while 6.69 yards per attempt allowed may sound decent, those 8 passers are collectively completing 58.3% of passes for only 6.35 yards per attempt against the rest of the league. It’s hardly a collection of notable names, and I would say Fitzpatrick is easily the best quarterback on that list this year. The Bengals are allowing almost 0.35 more yards per attempt than the league average once we account for who they have actually had to face. They are the beneficiary of not playing good quarterbacks, and their defensive numbers are deceptive, which has them at 4th in points allowed.
I expect Andy Dalton to start getting heaped with praise, as people look for some place to throw their intangible love as Tebow struggles. Don’t get me wrong, Dalton has played well for a rookie (6.7 yards per attempt, 9 TD to 7 int is solid for a rookie), but he’s getting credit for things that aren’t necessarily his doing. The Bengals are still a below-average offense, against a fairly weak schedule. I would take Cam Newton over him and not think twice – they have different team situations and different opponents so far. I don’t have enough fingers to count on one hand the number of times a rookie has been overly credited with a team’s success, only to be set up for failure in the years that follow.
Having a rookie quarterback and being a slightly below average offense isn’t a bad thing, and there are plenty of reasons to be excited for the future with Dalton, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham on offense. I just don’t think there are good reasons to think this is a legitimate playoff team yet because they’ve managed to win close games against lesser teams. Beat the Steelers and Ravens (4 of the 9 remaining games) enough to make the playoffs and I’ll gladly say I was wrong.
[photo via Getty]