In a true sign of the apocalypse, the Cincinnati Bengals are being picked by lots of people to be contenders for the Super Bowl. Most recently, 3 of 7 writers at CBS Sports picked Cincinnati to win the AFC, more than any other team. Herm Edwards picks to win the games, and pegged Cincinnati as the AFC North favorite. Our own Jason McIntyre was ahead of the curve on this, boldly predicting the Bengals as a Super Bowl contender right after they drafted Tyler Eifert.
In actual futures wagering, the Bengals are coming in with the fifth best odds to win the AFC, behind Denver, New England, Houston, and Pittsburgh. They have moved past defending champion Baltimore in recent weeks.
31 teams since 1990 meet the following criteria: a point differential within 25 points of Cincinnati’s +71 last year, and a Net Yards per Pass Attempt rank below the Top 12 on offense. To put it in laymen’s terms, these were winning playoff caliber teams who were not great passing teams, and were driven by their defense. Cincinnati was 20th out of 32 teams last year in Net Yards per Attempt. Cincinnati was also not as good, at least by the simple rating system, as that group because they played against what was seen as a very easy schedule. The +2.1 rating was better than only 7 of the 31 comparable teams.
The average win total went from 9.8 to 9.2 wins the next year. 61% of those teams made the postseason, a number that I think is reasonable for Cincinnati this year, given how the AFC seems to lack a middle class. Of those teams, 12 of the 31 managed to reach a conference championship game, while only 3 reached the Super Bowl (Baltimore 2000 is the only champion).
A few things stand out. Many of the teams that made the biggest leaps had new quarterbacks, which makes sense as they were usually below average at passing and saw big jumps. Minnesota in 2009, going from Tarvaris Jackson to Brett Favre, is one example. The 1998 Jets made a huge leap offensively once Vinny Testaverde became the quarterback, replacing Glenn Foley (and Neil O’Donnell from the previous season). Philadelphia in 2004 did not have a new quarterback, but they did sign Terrell Owens, who was a huge upgrade over the combination of James Thrash and Todd Pinkston.
The other way teams that were in this group made big jumps is by going from very good to dominant on defense. The Ravens in 2000 were the most obvious example. If the Bengals are going to fulfill the expectations of those predicting Super Bowl, they will need to become a dominant defense (possible, a young defense anchored by All Pro Geno Atkins will need the secondary to be very good to join those ranks), or take a large offensive leap. The defense was already top 5 in yards per play last year, so I am not sure how much more we can expect improvement to drive a leap from wildcard contender to Super Bowl contender.
There seems to be much faith that Andy Dalton can make that leap. I’m skeptical that the addition of Tyler Eifert is going to lead to a massive leap. He will help the offense, I just don’t see them going from 20th already with A.J. Green to top 6 by adding a rookie tight end. Few rookie tight ends make massive impacts. One exception to that is Jeremy Shockey, but Tony Gonzalez had 33 receptions and Jason Witten had 35 receptions as rookies, and even if you think Eifert is a future stud it may not manifest immediately in huge numbers.
For me, the Bengals are a reasonably safe pick to be a playoff contender. They are young, they are very good on both sides of the line, and they have depth of talent. The question for projecting more than that, though, is whether that offense can be exceptional. Andy Dalton really struggled on third down last year, for example, producing the fewest first downs relative to expectation.
Personally, I am not sure why Cincinnati is seen as a much better option than Houston, when the Bengals are kind of Houston-lite, great defensive lineman driving a defense, star wide receiver, but Houston has a better overall offense (and also added a rookie receiver to address the giant hole at WR #2). In fact, in last year’s playoff preview, when Cincinnati was everyone’s darlings to upset Houston, I said that the two teams were similar, but Houston better, and in those matchups, the historic results strongly favored the Texans.
I think that Cincinnati is again going to be in that wildcard mix, and certainly in a dogfight with Pittsburgh and Baltimore to win the division, just like last year. I am just not ready to put them as a Super Bowl contender. Many are, comfortable with Marvin Lewis making a strategy decision in a game against other contenders. As for which team somewhat similarly situated to Cincinnati, that I think can be the contender that is not currently among the top 5, well, wait until tomorrow.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]