It is no secret that the Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the surprise stories of the 2009 NFL season. They are 8-3, including a 6-0 sweep of the AFC North. What is the difference between this year and the many miserable years that Bengals fans have been forced to endure? What has changed?
Of course, Carson Palmer being under center and remaining relatively healthy has been a huge plus. Palmer missed the final 12 games of 2008 because of an elbow injury. The Bengals are ranked 21st in NFL passing, but having Palmer on the field to direct the offense keeps the threat of throwing the ball alive.
The running game has been excellent, currently ranked seventh in the NFL. Cedric Benson was on his way to a Pro Bowl season before missing the last two games. He still leads AFC running backs in Pro Bowl voting and is expected to start this Sunday against Detroit.
Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard have done a superb job spelling Benson. The signing of Larry Johnson has so far proved to be a good move as he rushed for 107 yards in last week's victory over Cleveland.
The Bengals defense has been outstanding, allowing a league-best 15.8 points per game. They have allowed just one opposing running back to crack the 100-yard mark this year.
I believe the real reason for the success of this team is a change of attitude. After losing the season opener against Denver on a tipped pass in the final seconds of the game, the Bengals could have imploded. Instead, they came back the next week and won a road game in Green Bay. That began a streak of gut-wrenching victories early in the year that earned them the "Cardiac Cats" nickname.
ESPN's Steve Young said the Bengals don't have what it takes to make noise in the playoffs, listing teams that pass and score at will (Colts, Saints, Vikings, Chargers) as ones to watch. I beg to differ.
The Bengals are simply doing what it takes to win. The Bengals have been down the road of being an offensive juggernaut that can score quickly and often. This year, they have won games with defense, controlling the clock and taking what the other team gives them.
The Bengals have only run the ball 26 more times than they have passed it this year. That number might surprise a lot of fans who are used to seeing a more vertical passing attack. The passes are high-percentage throws with a specific purpose.
The Bengals have a plan and are sticking to it. The plan seems to mimic several of this decade's Super Bowl teams. Run the ball and stop the run. It is very different from what most Bengals fans are used to, but I like it.
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