Why Cincinnati Bengals Are a Dark Horse Entering NFL Playoffs

Jason MarcumCorrespondent IIIDecember 12, 2013

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The NFL playoffs are approaching fast, and the Cincinnati Bengals aren't the team everyone's talking about as to who could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

No, that attention is once again being paid towards the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, teams with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, as well as head coaches who have coached in the NFL's championship game.

Meanwhile, the Bengals haven't won a playoff game in over two decades, which has led many to overlook them as the postseason draws closer. That's exactly how they like it, and here are three reasons why they're a dark horse poised to make a run through  the playoffs.


Andy Dalton's Improved Play

While the Bengals are a team that prides itself on great defense and efficient offense, sometimes they need quarterback Andy Dalton to have a big game for them to prevail, and that was evident on Sunday vs. the Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck picked apart the Bengals defense to the tune of  326 yards and four touchdowns.

But as the defense struggled, Dalton answered the call, throwing for 275 yards and three touchdowns while running for another score. The Bengals also improved to 10-1 when Dalton throws for three or more touchdowns in a game.

There have been too many turnovers on my part," Dalton said via Bengals.com. "I’ve been conscious about when to throw the ball away and when not to try something that could make a play worse. That’s the goal going in the rest of the way – not turning the ball over. It definitely helped us last week, and if you win the turnover battle, you have a better chance of winning the game.

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 08:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs for a touchdown during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts  at Paul Brown Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

And according to Pro Football Focus, Dalton completed 13 of 15 passes and threw two of his three touchdowns on plays when the Colts blitzed him (16 blitzes in his 37 dropbacks). That's an area of Dalton's game that he's significantly improved this year. 

Too often, the Bengals have won in spite of Dalton, but he was the one who carried Cincinnati to victory on Sunday. If the Bengals are to make a deep run in the playoffs, there will be at least one game where Dalton has to step up and carry this team to victory.

For now, it appears he's finally capable of doing that.


Home-Field Advantage

The Bengals haven't had a first-round bye in the postseason since 1988, when they went 10-0 with a pair of home playoff wins on their way to the Super Bowl. They're 6-0 at home right now with two games left against the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, two games in which they'll be favored to win.

If they can catch the New England Patriots and earn a first-round bye by way of being the No. 2 seed in the AFC, they won't have to play on the road until the AFC Championship game (depending on opponent). The Bengals feed off of their home crowd as much as any NFL team, and if they can stay home for the first or second round of the playoffs, that could help them make a deep postseason run.


Balanced Offense

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 1:  BenJarvus Green-Ellis #42 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs the ball against the San Diego Chargers during their game on December 1, 2013 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The Bengals have relied on their defense for much of the season, but now the offense appears to be hitting its stride. They're averaging 33 points per game over the last three games, and the offense is becoming more balanced.

Over the first 10 games, Andy Dalton was averaging nearly 40 passing attempts per game, but is only averaging 28 over the last three games. The running backs are also becoming more involved in the offense. Giovani Bernard is averaging 100 yards from scrimmage while BenJarvus Green-Ellis is pounding out 67 rushing yards per game.

Our goal is to keep winning, whatever it takes to win," Dalton said via Bengals.com. "We have to be consistent and be able to run and throw the ball. I have to make quick decisions and get the ball to our guys. When we do that, we’ve been successful.

That kind of balance is helping to mask Dalton's weaknesses while eating up more clock. That was evident Sunday versus the Colts when the Bengals recorded a season-high 28 first downs. That kept a red hot Andrew Luck on the sideline and helped Cincinnati cruise to an easy win.

They'll need that same strategy against the likes of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning if they face them in the playoffs.

Cincinnati is poised to make it to the playoffs for the third consecutive season, which would be the first time that's happened in the history of the franchise. However, if this team is to make a run in the playoffs and win multiple games after not winning one since 1990, home-field advantage, a balanced offense and continued improvement by Dalton will be essential to doing so.