Balance. It's the most coveted quality for an NFL team to possess. To be strong on defense against both the run and the pass, to run the ball well, pass it just as proficiently and win the field position battle on special teams is a formula to not just wins, but dominant ones.
And that's just what the Cincinnati Bengals have done over their three-game winning streak, making it easy to call them the AFC North's most balanced team, even if they aren't sitting atop their division.
In the past three games, the Bengals have outscored their opponents 93-29, dramatically turning around the four-week losing streak. While two of those three teams could be considered part of the "lowly" category this season, the important thing to note is that the Bengals not only beat those teams—the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders—they did so in a big way, felling the Chiefs 28-6 in Week 11 and the Raiders on Sunday, 34-10.
These weren't close games that the Bengals struggled to pull off in the waning minutes; rather, they were clear statements that Cincinnati has, and fielded, the better team by far. Its early-season struggles to run the ball, contain big passing games and prevent quarterback Andy Dalton from throwing picks seems to have melted away, and now, the Bengals have some serious momentum heading into what's likely to be a down-to-the-wire fight for the AFC's two Wild Card playoff spots.
Even the most unbeatable-seeming teams over the past few seasons—the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints, as four examples—have each had a glaring flaw that doomed them in the end. Whether it's a porous defense, a lack of a run game or an inconsistent quarterback, these particular Achilles' heels have doomed playoff and Super Bowl hopes and also served as concrete evidence that the league's best teams are the most balanced, not just the ones who have a few 55-point games under their belts.
The emergence of Cincinnati's run game has been the No. 1 reason why the team has managed such an impressive turnaround. In the past two weeks, the Bengals have had 409 and 415 yards of offense, respectively, with the run game accounting for 189 and 221 of them. Not much has changed in terms of personnel—BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still the team's No. 1 back, and aside from an increased number of carries to Cedric Peerman, things aren't much different.
There are two reasons for why the Bengals have managed to run the ball better: a new-found cohesiveness in their offensive line and their opponents' fear of the passing game.
Effective running comes with it more opportunities for good play-action passing, and opposing defenses are more prepared for this possibility than ever before. As such, the play-calling can fake out their opponents, making them anticipate pass instead of run and sending them out deep to keep close coverage on wide receiver A.J. Green and now, Mohamed Sanu, who is a legitimate scoring threat of his own.
There are fewer defenders playing close, giving Green-Ellis ample opportunity to use his strength—and the good blocking of his line—to power through those defenders still up front. The adage of the pass setting up the run rings quite true when it comes to the Bengals' uptick in rushing production over the past weeks.
When it comes to the offensive line's contributions to the run game, they've been mainly related to time. Before the season commenced, the plan was to have free-agent signee Travelle Wharton at left guard, longtime Bengal Kyle Cook at center and rookie Kevin Zeitler at right guard. Since that time, Wharton's seen his season end with a right knee injury, Cook is presently on injured reserve (designated to return) and his free-agent replacement, Jeff Faine, lost his starting job after a hamstring injury forced the team to put in rookie Trevor Robinson, who has proven a better fit.
With this much shuffling on the line, it takes time for everything to come together, both in run blocking and pass protection. When the offensive line was still trying to build chemistry, the results were clear—the Bengals had one of the worst rushing yards averages in the league, and Dalton found himself under considerable pressure, resulting in him throwing both interceptions and bad passes without time to connect with his targets.
On defense, the Bengals' successes are very apparent. They have 35 total sacks—compared to just 26 for their opponents—led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Geno Atkins with nine and defensive end Michael Johnson with eight. Of the 11 fumbles they've forced, they have recovered 10 of them, and though they have only eight interceptions as a unit so far this year, they rank eighth in passing yards allowed per game and allow just 1.2 passing touchdowns on average per game.
Everything flows out of the Bengals defensive line, which is easily one of the best in the league. Pressure up front keeps opposing quarterbacks from establishing a rhythm and from having enough time to attempt to throw deep. All that is left at times is the run, and when the Bengals know it is coming, they're more than prepared to stop it.
Over the past three games, the Bengals have been more consistent in points than their AFC North counterparts, with 31, 28 and 34 respectively. They've had less fluctuation in yardage and have allowed fewer yards to their opponents in each consecutive week.
|Comparing AFC North Teams, Last 3 Games|
The strength of their run game now manages their passing game's firepower, and the defense hasn't slipped. There are currently no worries about which version of the Bengals may take the field from one week to the next and no doubts that they can take on opponents both big and small—from the New York Giants of the world to the Chiefs and any in between—without any faltering in their game plan or execution.
If balance is the hallmark of a truly good team, then the Bengals have a lot going for them even if they aren't, in terms of win-loss record, the best team in the AFC North.
In fact, they may be something better than that: the division's most balanced. That will take them farther in the postseason, should they get there, than any first-round bye or home field advantage ever could.