On the cusp of their Week 10 meeting with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the Cincinnati Bengals held a 3-5 record and dropped their last four games in a row. It seemed impossible for the Bengals to bounce back against such a highly regarded team, despite the Giants' lack of wins in Cincinnati historically and their apparent inability to in November.
Not only did the Bengals win, however, they did so in grand fashion, defeating the Giants 31-13, with quarterback Andy Dalton throwing four touchdowns and no picks in a career-best performance. The Cincinnati defense sacked Giants quarterback Eli Manning four times and picked him off twice.
The win keeps the Bengals in the playoff hunt, and the nature of the victory sends a message that they are worthy of contender status.
To remain in that discussion, however, the Bengals need to keep winning. Let's see how things look in Cincinnati and whether the Bengals can continue playing as they did against the Giants.
The Good: All Three Phases
One main reason why the Bengals had lost the four games prior to beating the Giants is a failure of execution by a different unit each week. Andy Dalton shouldered much of the blame in Weeks 5 through 7, as his inaccuracy and his alarming habit of throwing interceptions when facing pressure thwarted the Cincinnati offense.
Against the Denver Broncos in Week 9, the biggest issue was containing Peyton Manning and failing to stop Trindon Holliday from returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the second half. Mistakes, and costly ones at that, doomed the entire team.
There were promising moments in that loss to Denver, however. They managed to contain Manning's deep passing for the most part, and Dalton threw better despite being under constant pressure (though he did throw an interception). It was a good start towards preparing for Peyton's younger brother and the Giants in the following week.
The Giants presently are in a slump of sorts, and the Bengals took full advantage of it. For all of the praise heaped upon Cincinnati's defensive front seven, their secondary hasn't been strong this year. Dalton made sure to connect early and often with his biggest deep-play receiver, A.J. Green, starting with a 56-yard touchdown pass in the game's first minutes and targeting him 10 times for seven receptions over the course of the game.
Ultimately, Dalton connected with seven different players on the day and threw touchdowns to four different receivers, landing him the honor of AFC Offensive Player of the Week. Rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu made his case for being the team's dedicated No. 2 wideout with four catches for 47 yards and a score, and slot threat Andrew Hawkins ended his scoring drought with a first-quarter touchdown, which put the Bengals up 14-0, a lead the Giants never came near to closing in on.
On defense, the Bengals beat the Giants at their own game. Their front seven kept the pressure on Manning almost constantly, resulting in four sacks and two interceptions. The Bengals defense also forced a fumble.
The D took a page out of the Pittsburgh Steelers playbook, shutting off deep routes to New York's receivers. Manning had just 215 passing yards, no touchdowns and completed none of the four 20-plus-yard passes he attempted.
Special teams were also stellar for the Bengals, with Adam Jones returning a punt for 68 yards, which set up Hawkins' score, and their coverage team allowed nothing longer than a 29-yard kick return by the Giants David Wilson.
The Bengals needed to bounce back from their four-game slide with a win, and this one wasn't just pulled out in the final minute—it was 60 solid minutes of dominant football, the best game we've seen out of the team all season.
The main question here—something that I raised earlier this week—is whether this kind of performance is sustainable. A glance at the Bengals' next three games—the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers—says that it very well could be.
However, they cannot allow overconfidence and complacency to creep in.
Cincinnati still does not have a winning record, and its defeat of the Giants was the first over a better-than-.500 team this season. Their next three opponents are all AFC West teams and are far less daunting than New York, which on the one hand indicates the Bengals should have little trouble dispatching them, but on the other, could lead to them to overlooking a game that they should win.
It's exciting for the Bengals that they could get that much pressure on Eli Manning when he's been so hard to sack this season. And it's encouraging that Dalton did not throw a pick (for the first time this season), but that doesn't mean there aren't things that need improving.
Cincinnati still needs to get its running game on track (perhaps by giving more carries to Cedric Peerman, who had a season-high six carries against New York) and the No. 2 receiver position is still very much in flux, though Sanu looks sharper than anyone else contending for the job.
On defense, their linebackers are still underperforming, and concerns remain about the consistency of the secondary.
Week 10's win over the Giants was a statement and the signature victory to date for the Dalton-era Bengals. Now, the pressure is on the Bengals to continue to play at that level, and despite the seemingly easy competition ahead of them, they cannot let up. It's important that last week's win wasn't just a fluke moment when everything came together.
What's Next: The Kansas City Chiefs
Don't let the Kansas City Chiefs performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night fool you—this isn't a tough team to beat. However, the Bengals cannot go into Arrowhead this Sunday and assume they don't have to put in the work.
Clearly, the focal point of the Chiefs offense is running back Jamaal Charles—he had 100 rushing yards against an otherwise stout Steelers defense in Week 10—so the main focus of Cincinnati's defense should be to keep him contained.
However, the pressure Cincinnati's defensive line is able to bring should assist the Bengals incredibly. Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel is a turnover machine, and Kansas City as a whole has turned the ball over 27 times already this year. The greater the pressure, the greater the chance that Cassel will make a mistake, giving Charles fewer chances to touch the ball.
On offense, the Bengals offensive line will have to continue to protect Dalton; they did a good job last week, allowing no sacks, but they gave up five against Denver the previous week. Generally speaking, as Dalton goes, so go the Bengals, and the more opportunities he has to make plays the better off they'll be.