The Cincinnati Bengals are in for a long year despite winning against Buffalo 27-24 in overtime. With the win and the losses to Baltimore and Cleveland, Cincinnati has seized sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
But if you've been keeping tabs on Cincinnati, frustration shouldn't be a surprise. For the past decade, much of what has happened in Cincinnati is stranger than fiction. And almost always negative.
Entering the season, Cincinnati was a trendy pick to win its division and potentially go to the AFC Championship game. Some even considered the Bengals a potential dark horse Super Bowl Champion, with good reason.
Cincinnati has a great defense, coordinated by Mike Zimmer and anchored by all-star defensive tackle Geno Atkins. This season, Zimmer's defense smothered premier quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Cincinnati was winning games that it would have lost in previous years.
Their offense can be just as powerful when all cylinders are clicking. With talent such as tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, capable running backs Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard and star receiver A.J. Green, Cincinnati should be putting up 30 points and 300 passing yards per game.
But the Bengals haven't.
For some reason, the defense has allowed lesser teams led by lightly-regarded quarterbacks to remain competitive.
Sunday afternoon, the Bengals should have easily won against Thaddeus Lewis and the Buffalo Bills. A missed field goal by Mike Nugent in the fourth quarter gave Buffalo some life.
What should have been a 27-10 lead remained 24-10 until Lewis led two scoring drives, tying the game at 24 and sending it into overtime. After both teams had a chance to score, Nugent finally ended the game with the 43-yard field goal.
Lewis finished 19 of 32 for 216 yards and two scores, turning the ball over once. But Lewis should never have had the chance to lead the Bills to an upset over a potential Super Bowl team.
Part of the blame rests with the defense because it should protect leads and force turnovers, and it hasn't always done that. Even then, the defense is still performing at or near the top 10 in most categories.
Cincinnati should stay competitive in every game this year thanks to its defense. The only teams with offenses capable of slicing through Zimmer's personnel are Denver, which the Bengals wouldn't play until the playoffs, and Indianapolis in December.
Most of Cincinnati's problems reside with the offense. Specifically, the passing game.
The run game is adequate with the tandem of Bernard and Green-Ellis. Bernard provides a Reggie Bush-like mixture of speed and toughness while Green-Ellis can pound the defense into submission and limit turnovers with his normally secure hands.
Quarterback Andy Dalton didn't breach 300-yards passing until this week, and even so, just finally in overtime. He also threw an interception deep in Buffalo territory at the end of the first half, overthrew Eifert on the previous play and then overthrew Green in the back of the end zone at the end of the third quarter.
Dalton's problems are well-known. He doesn't possess elite arm strength, occasionally makes bad decisions and isn't the most athletic quarterback.
But as Jim Harbaugh demonstrated with Alex Smith a few years ago, these issues can be schemed around. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has yet to figure out how.
Gruden should involve Eifert and Gresham in the short passing game. Along with receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, Dalton would have four dynamic targets in the short to intermediate passing game and Bernard available as a check-down.
This would force teams to pick their poison. Either double-team Green and get beat by any combination of the five receivers or leave a single man on Green and watch as he torches the defense.
But whatever scheme Gruden designs to address the problem, it needs to happen fast. At 4-2, Cincinnati leads the AFC North and can start securing its lead with a win next week at Detroit. But to win the division, the Bengals need to convincingly defeat weaker opponents.