The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday by a score of 42-28. The win gives them control over the AFC's third seed in the playoffs and puts them on the verge of moving up to the No. 2 spot, which comes with the crucial home-field advantage.
The victory also extends their win streak to three games. With three favorable contests ahead, starting next Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals appear to be getting hot at exactly the right time.
What makes the win even sweeter for the Bengals is that it didn't come in spite of their quarterback, Andy Dalton. In his last two games, Dalton has been held to under 200 passing yards and had thrown three interceptions to four touchdowns. Against the Colts, he looked more like the Dalton of October.
|AFC Playoff Standings|
|2.||New England Patriots||10-3|
|5.||Kansas City Chiefs||10-3|
|*Broncos vs. Titans in progress|
Dalton completed 24 of 35 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He had no turnovers and was neither hit nor sacked by Indianapolis' defense. He was again on-target with his most dynamic receiver, A.J. Green, who caught six of eight passes thrown his way for 72 yards and a touchdown. Dalton also spread the ball around, targeting nine different receivers. Seven recorded catches.
Most impressively, the Bengals paired up a dedication to running the ball with a solid passing game for a balanced offensive attack. To go along with Dalton's 35 pass attempts, they ran the ball 35 times, netting them 155 yards, including 99 for Giovani Bernard and 48 for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who also added two rushing touchdowns. Dalton even added an eight-yard touchdown run.
That's the biggest reason the Bengals have become one of the most dangerous playoff contenders. They don't have to lean on solely their quarterback nor their run game to net them yards. Balance is what defines a championship-level offense, and that's what the Bengals put on display this Sunday against the likely playoff-bound Colts.
We know that Dalton's arm can lead to a Bengals victory—October's successes prove that. We know that the defense and special teams can carry them when Dalton struggles—their 41-20 Week 11 defeat of the Cleveland Browns is a prime example.
We've also seen the run game alone net major dividends for the Bengals, as it did against the San Diego Chargers last week, in which Dalton had 190 passing yards and the offense as a whole ran for 164.
The Bengals are a team capable of doing it all. Having many ways to win is a hallmark of a playoff success story, and it's why the Bengals are poised to do better than the one-and-done postseason team they were over the last two years.
Further, there's a chance that the Bengals could grab hold of the AFC's second seed and play out all or most of their postseason at home. With tight end Rob Gronkowski reportedly suffering a torn ACL on Sunday, the New England Patriots could find themselves down a weapon. That could affect them enough to drop them in the playoff standings with just another loss or two.
|Bengals at Home, Last 3 Games|
|Week 8||vs. New York Jets||W, 49-9|
|Week 11||vs. Cleveland Browns||W, 41-20|
|Week 14||vs. Indianapolis Colts||W, 42-28|
|40+ PPG at home, last three games.|
Before any of this can happen, however, the Bengals must keep piling up wins. They need to dispatch the Steelers in Pittsburgh next week before closing out the season with two games at home against the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens.
This is good news—the Bengals haven't lost a game at home this year. It's why their remaining schedule is in their favor and why the No. 2 seed in the playoffs needs to be on their minds. It's going to be hard for the Vikings or Ravens to put up 40 or more points against the Bengals in Cincinnati, but the Bengals shouldn't have a problem doing so if their last three home games are any indication.
The win over the Colts marks the Bengals' third win this year over eventual playoff teams. They bested the Patriots in Week 5, the Detroit Lions in Week 7 and the Colts this week. They also defeated the Green Bay Packers in Week 3, when Aaron Rodgers was healthy. Any team facing them must be prepared not just for a good quarterback, but also a solid run game, a dangerous defense and underrated special teams.
The Bengals are building momentum that could make them very difficult to defeat come January. They are putting together wins by leaning on their various strengths. At this point, the only thing that may be capable of stopping them is themselves.
There is no hotter team in the AFC than the Bengals right now, and they can ride that wave all the way to the Super Bowl.