Let's all just be very honest. At the beginning of this season, some people heard about Bill Cowher's prediction that the Cincinnati Bengals would be in the play-offs this year.
I'm a huge Bengals fan, but even I thought he was crazy. To go from four wins to the play-offs? I just couldn't see it happening.
But at the end of last season, the Bengals signed Cedric Benson off of the waiver wire. He hadn't played all season, so no one expected him to make any impact.
He started the last few games for the Bengals, and his performance gave fans in Cincinnati a little reason to hope.
Oh, we had no idea of what was to come.
For those who don't know Benson's history in the pros, let's recap: As a highly touted prospect out of Texas several years ago, Benson was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears.
While in Chicago, he showed brief flashes of greatness, but could never really put it all together. Last season, Benson was arrested for an alcohol-related incident, and Chicago cut him loose.
The Bengals were being put in the cellar of the NFL. But Benson brought a little excitement.
He would continue to bring the crowd to their feet.
Benson won the starting tailback job out of training camp this year, and he started off the year with a bang, rushing for 141 yards against the Packers in the second game of the year in a 31-24 win.
Three games later, he became the first player in 40 games to rush for 100 yards against the Baltimore Ravens with a 120 yard effort, including a touchdown.
He did the same thing a few weeks later when he hit 117 yards against the same Baltimore team. The Bengals won both games.
His most impressive game, though, came against his former team, the Chicago Bears. Benson rushed for 189 yards and a touchdown to put a dent in the team that had cast him away. He was the key catalyst in the Bengal's 45-10 win.
At one point this year, Benson was the second leading rusher in the NFL. Many people have tried to credit this to the return of a healthy Carson Palmer, but in truth, it's the other way around.
The return of a strong running game gives Cincinnati the ability to keep defenses honest against the pass. Teams can't just sit back and wait to pick Palmer off because they have to respect the threat that Benson provides.
This also makes play-action much more lethal. When teams have to pay attention to a strong running and passing game, it's impossible to predict what plays are coming up.
Linebackers and safeties have to hesitate a little to see who has the ball, Benson or Palmer.
That little hesitation is all Carson Palmer needs to tear a secondary apart.
Even though he has been injured, Carson Palmer is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
He takes advantage of Benson's skill in big ways, and it has shown up on the scoreboard in Cincinnati this year. Palmer no longer has to be the only offensive leader for the Bengals.
A perfect example: The last time the Bengals made the play-offs (2005), they went 11-5 and did so on the strength of the a strong run game credited to Rudi Johnson. Johnson opened up things for the strong arm of Carson Palmer, and it resulted in a play-off berth.
Cincinnati is hoping to do the same thing this year. With an 8-3 record, the Bengals are sitting atop the AFC North and are primed to be a serious play-off threat.
He did recently miss two games due to a hip injury, but now that's he's back and healthy, defenses had better be prepared to chase him all game long.
That's how it works sometimes in the NFL. One team sees a player as a wasted draft pick; another sees him as a diamond in the rough. Benson is finally living up to the potential he has always had as a former first round pick.
The Bears aren't to blame for his failure there though. Sometimes a player needs a change of scenery before he can really play the way he's able to.
A huge amount of credit goes to the offensive line. The Bengals new and improved O-line has been opening up holes for Benson all year long and it doing a great job of protecting Palmer.
Credit should always go to the big men up front; they're the ones who block every play.
So now that the Bengals have an all-around talented offense, fans are looking to the future. While Benson might just be a one year wonder, game tape says differently. He has great vision down field and runs with a purpose.
He might not be the home run hitter of a guy like the Titans' Chris Johnson, but Benson gets the job done the way the Bengals have asked him to.
There's no question Benson's legs can run Cincinnati to the play-offs.
The question is: how far can they go?
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