Say what you will about the Cincinnati Bengals, but after their third straight win—and their third consecutive drubbing of an opponent—this looks like a team ready to make a late-season surge and their second playoff appearance in as many years.
This week, the sacrificial lamb was the Oakland Raiders, whom they defeated, 34-10. Yes, it's the second straight win over a team the Bengals should have beaten, but "should have" is a dangerous phrase in the NFL, where anything can happen. But the Bengals deserve credit for yet again approaching their opponent with the perfect game plan in mind and for not falling prey to playing down to a seemingly lesser opponent.
There's a clear blueprint for defeating the Raiders this year—pull ahead with an early lead and never look back—and that's just what the Bengals did, putting up 24 points to Oakland's zero by halftime and allowing them few chances to ever even think of catching up. Indeed, the only fight the Raiders gave the Bengals this week was a literal one.
For the third straight week, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw no picks and multiple touchdowns—he's nine scores to no turnovers over that span, in fact—with rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu being his most productive target on the day.
Though A.J. Green surpassed Sanu in yards, with three catches for 111 yards, Sanu had five catches on nine targets for only 29 yards but two touchdowns. Dalton's third score came via a familiar face in tight end Jermaine Gresham, who ended the day with four catches and 41 yards as well.
The Bengals also had themselves quite the productive run game, again taking advantage of a poor AFC West run defense. BenJarvus Green-Elllis had 129 yards and a score on 19 carries, including runs of 48 and 39 yards, and Cedric Peerman added 61 yards on eight runs.
In all, Cincinnati put up 415 yards of total offense to Oakland's 218, converted nine of 17 third downs to the Raiders' 3-of-12 and their defense sacked Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer four times, forcing him to fumble once. Safety Chris Crocker also picked Palmer off once.
This Bengals' win makes the AFC playoff picture far more interesting. At 6-5, they are now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a wild-card berth; the win over the Raiders gives them a leg up on the Steelers, as they lost to the Raiders earlier this season, but the Bengals also fell to the Cleveland Browns, who defeated Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The Bengals have one more game against the Steelers, in Week 16, and they face the San Diego Chargers next Sunday, with the Chargers as of this writing in the lead against the Baltimore Ravens, who currently are atop the AFC North. Things may just be tipping into the Bengals' favor, and as long as they can keep up this win streak, there's a very real chance they see the field in January.
There are strong teams in the Bengals' future—the aforementioned Steelers (especially if they get quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back by that time) and Ravens, as well as the unpredictable Dallas Cowboys—but nothing they cannot handle, especially if their 31-13 win over the New York Giants earlier in November is any indication.
All the Bengals have had to do is keep it up, and they have. They haven't just beaten bad teams in the past two weeks—they've all but dismantled them. The win-loss records of their opponents don't really matter; the Bengals have no control over what other teams have done in the intervening weeks. Cincinnati keeps winning, convincingly, and at the exactly the right time, and that's all that counts.