After a lengthy stint as one of the two Ohio also-rans of the AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals have found the recipe for success. And, unsurprisingly, it's similar to the model used by the Steelers and Ravens teams that used to be the class of the division.
With (usually) efficient quarterback play, a solid dual-threat rushing attack and, most importantly, a stifling defense, the Bengals are off to an 8-4 start and well on their way to a third consecutive winning season.
In spite of their success to date, the Bengals aren't garnering anywhere near the recognition they deserve.
RT if you have the @Chargers at home beating the Bengals tomorrow in San Diego.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 1, 2013
Faced with a road matchup against a Chargers team coming off their biggest win of the season against the Chiefs, many pundits perceived the Bengals to be at a decided disadvantage. This was only compounded by their paltry 2-4 record outside of Paul Brown Stadium.
So much for that.
No, the 17-10 margin of victory isn't overly impressive, nor does it have to be. December football isn't about dismantling opponents; it's about grinding out victories. And against a Chargers outfit that's yet to drop a contest by more than 10 points this year, the Bengals did just that.
In the first half, the Chargers crossed into Cincinnati territory four times but only managed seven points on a picture-perfect touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Ladarius Green. The sledding would only get tougher for Rivers' squad in the second half.
"Just when they'd get to the 40-yard line, we had to stop them. That's what we're good at. They cross the 50 and everybody stepped up to make plays," said Vontaze Burfict in a postgame interview with the Associated Press (via ESPN).
Two more San Diego drives would cross midfield before being snuffed out by the Bengals defense, one on Dre Kirkpatrick's first career interception.
With the Bengals holding a 10-point advantage, a fourth-quarter fumble from Keenan Allen deep in Chargers territory seemed to secure the Cincinnati victory. But on the ensuing drive, BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave the ball right back to San Diego and gifted it a field goal.
Now facing a one-score deficit and with five minutes left to play, the Chargers unknowingly made the biggest mistake of the game. They kicked off.
On first down, Andy Dalton went for the jugular and hit A.J. Green for 28 yards. From there, Green-Ellis went to work redeeming himself. The "Law Firm" gained 29 yards on the final possession, allowing the Bengals to assume the victory formation while Rivers and Co. looked on helplessly.
HUGE road win for Bengals at Chargers. Didn't think they could pull that off.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) December 2, 2013
So, will this be the victory that prompts analysts to mention the Bengals with the Manning- and Brady-led squads atop the AFC? Unlikely.
But the Bengals don't seem to be very worried about that. Nor should they be, with a contest against the Colts looming and a better playoff seed still very much in play.
At home against an Indianapolis outfit which hasn't been able to compete with anybody not named the Titans in the past month, the Bengals should be favored to take hold of the AFC's third seed. But after getting bounced in the Wild Card round two years running, the Bengals and successful reclamation project Adam Jones have much larger aspirations than just making it to the postseason.
"That's the main thing. We're not playing just to make the playoffs," Jones said (via AP). "We're playing for the bye. We played hard and physical on defense. If we keep playing hard and smart and we're going to be a real, real good team."