A good friend of mine and longtime Bengals fan spoke to me last night about watching Carson Palmer make his first throw in the Silver and Black. He was unsure if he would root for their former franchise quarterback or against him. As his first rainbow pass eventually landed as a completion, he let out an expletive and he knew exactly where he stood. Palmer quit on the Bengals, and laughably, they are better for it.
The Bengals have made it to their bye week at 4-2. If the playoffs started today, they would be heading to San Diego to face the Chargers as the sixth seed (the Bengals would take the tiebreaker over Buffalo due to their head-to-head win). Remarkably, they would be one of three AFC North teams in.
Unfortunately for Cincinnati fans, the playoffs do not start today. So, can they actually ride the right arm and red hair of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton into the postseason?
It would appear that the Bengals have won with their defense and ability to establish the run. They do have the No. 1 defense in the league in terms of yards per game, allowing teams to gain only 278.5 each contest and 4.6 per play. While the Bengals can and do run the ball, they actually have thrown it 201 times compared to 167 rushes and average only 3.8 yards per carry.
In this era of the pass-happy NFL, those play call numbers indicate relative balance. However, their rushing efficiency ranks only 26th and would not indicate that the perception of the Bengals as a good running team is correct.
When Carson Palmer was traded last week, I was surprised. Anytime Mike Brown digs in his heels, he stays put for better or worse (almost unanimously worse). Even though I do not think he meant it to go down this way, this trade was a steal. It was a steal even if Palmer returns to form.
Brown never makes this move if they were not very pleased with Dalton. Why wouldn't they be? Dalton might not put up the yardage or touchdown numbers of the top-tier quarterbacks, but he has been solid by averaging just a shade under seven yards per attempt, throwing just five picks, and being sacked only 11 times.
He is a difference-maker, and the perception of the Bengals as just a clock-controlling, conservative, rushing offense is not applicable with him at the helm.
To put aside statistics for a moment, all you need to do is just watch him in the huddle. He is poised and confident, and it appears like he has control. It can't hurt that the skill players are mostly young and lacking the developed egos of the departed T.O. and Ochocinco. That has to make it easier for him to be the leader.
The Bengals defense is keeping games close and Dalton and the rest of the offense are making timely plays to win games late. It is similar to the Jets in Sanchez's rookie year. They are not going to blow anyone out, the games will be close and it comes down to late-game execution.
The main difference between those two teams is that Cincinnati does not have a dominant run game like those Jets.
One reason the Bengals began this year with an inkling of sleeper buzz (by inkling, I mean literally just Mike Lombardi on Bill Simmons' NFL preview podcast) is the soft schedule that they were blessed with by themselves being soft last year. So far, the Bengals have beaten the Bills, Colts, Browns and Jaguars who collectively are 8-17.
To be fair, the Colts and Jaguars skew that quite a bit at a combined 1-12. Conversely, the Bills are the only team on that list to be taken seriously as a possible playoff team.
Cincinnati has lost to the pre-savior Broncos and the 49ers. In all likelihood, the 49ers could play the rest of the year with the UNC-Charlotte 49ers roster and still win that division. So no shame in losing to the eventual 2011 NFC West champions. However, the Broncos loss hurt, and will likely be one that has the Cincy faithful in agony at the end of the season.
The Bengals have outscored their opponents by 26 points this season. That averages out to just a bit over four a game, or one possession. The games should continue to be close.
Their offense is not yet to a point where I think you can expect them to do anything. Meaning, there isn't a team on their schedule where you can definitely say that they will drop 30 on them, regardless of the opponent's merits.
Their positive point differential, solid defense, and +3 turnover ratio infers that their success is not a fluke, and that all things being equal, they should continue to have similar efforts moving forward. Using this very-less-than-scientific logic, we can look at the remaining Bengals games as "should-win," "should-lose" and "coin-flip."
The other five are "coin-flip" games at the Titans and Seahawks, and against the Ravens, Steelers and Texans at home. Looking at the other wild card playoff hopefuls in the AFC (Jets, Raiders, Bills, Steelers/Ravens) I think you have to get to 10-6 to get in, meaning you need three of the above five.
Considering the way the Texans have had their number recently, how good the Ravens are and that the Titans and Seahawks are not gimmes and they are on the road, the numbers point to the Bengals finishing at 9-7 and missing the playoffs.
Predictions aside, the Bengals' playoff hopes rest with Dalton's ability to continue to keep them in games and make a few big plays down field. If he can, they have a shot to win any game they play. If he struggles, they could lose to anyone.
However, if they find a way to take the next two on the road, this is a playoff team. More importantly, If they can turn the Palmer picks into above-average NFL starters, this is a playoff team for a long time.