The knock against the Cincinnati Bengals is that they struggle against playoff-caliber teams. They certainly didn't play one this week when they traveled to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars, but with the season now a quarter of the way through, the only thing that matters is getting the W, no matter the opponent.
The Bengals manhandled the Jaguars, 27-10, despite inconsistent play at times on both sides of the ball. However, simple flashes of greatness are generally all it takes to defeat a team with as many issues as Jacksonville, and Cincinnati managed to make more than enough plays to pull out a near-blowout win.
Cincinnati managed to hold the Jaguars offense to just 212 total yards, including a mere 69 rush yards—an area in which the defense has struggled so far this year.
On offense, the Bengals were near-brilliant; aside from a BenJarvus Green-Ellis lost fumble at the Jacksonville 1-yard line (his second of three in the past two weeks—the only fumbles of his professional career), and an early Andy Dalton interception (which Kyle Bosworth promptly fumbled back to the Bengals), it was an impressive outing.
Dalton went 20-of-31, for 244 yards and two touchdowns (including one rushing score), and the Bengals were able to run for 138 yards, with 82 of those going to Green-Ellis and 48 more to Cedric Peerman on a direct-snap fake punt.
Dalton targeted nine different receivers (with just Armon Binns blanked on his five targets), including a surprise one-yard scoring pass to fullback Chris Pressley, a name we've heard little of so far this season. The day, yet again, clearly belonged to receiver A.J. Green, who had 117 yards on his six receptions and a touchdown.
On defense, though the Bengals were without both starting corners Leon Hall (calf) and Nate Clements (hamstring), Adam Jones and Terence Newman did not have disappointing showings.
Newman and Jones combined for five tackles and a defensed pass, and strong safety Chris Crocker, in his first game back with the Bengals after being re-signed by the team earlier this week, picked off Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
That newer-look Bengals secondary was helped out by an anemic Jaguars passing game (if there was any week in which the Bengals could afford two starters in their secondary it was certainly this one), but the three veterans handled their jobs well (aside from a Justin Blackmon-heavy third-quarter drive that netted Jacksonville just a field goal).
Cincinnati had a successful day bringing the pressure to Gabbert, who is susceptible to crumbling when facing it. They sacked him six times—twice by Geno Atkins and one apiece for Vontaze Burfict, Manny Lawson, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. At the same time, the Jaguars, who don't have a terrible front seven, couldn't bring Dalton down once.
The goal in weeks like this—when a team atop their division takes on one that's been disappointing both on the field and on paper—is to not falter. It's important to win the winnable games, and to do so dominantly.
Holding Jacksonville to just 10 points, even with the miscues in execution (like Green-Ellis' fumbles and that early Dalton interception) and injuries to key starters forcing them into a backup plan, shows that the Bengals have the talent to compensate for uncertain situations.
It's no substitution for beating a playoff team, of course, but the Bengals haven't faced many just a quarter through the season. More important, this week, was that they didn't let Jacksonville hang around—something that a truly superior team should never allow.
There is but one team in the AFC with a better record than Cincinnati and two others also at 3-1, notably division rivals the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals, with another win, stay atop the standings, and, tellingly, have consistently shown improvement week after week.
No win in the NFL is easy, but the Bengals made it look as though it was over the Jaguars on Sunday. It may not necessarily be a victory over a playoff-bound squad, but it's one that, down the line, may secure the Bengals being one for the second consecutive season.