Bengals fans find themselves in a funny position heading into Week 10. Sitting at 6-2 atop the AFC North, the 2011 Bengals players seem to be the only ones who actually thought they would be heading into this week's match-up with the Pittsburgh Steelers with playoff hopes still intact.
I wrote an article before the season suggesting that the Bengals could potentially enter this week at 8-0. It hasn't worked out that way, but the Bengals have certainly exceeded expectations.
This team was largely written off before the season began, and despite recent success, TV 'experts' have continued to chuckle when discussing the current AFC North standings.
There is no doubt that Marvin Lewis' Bengals have achieved great things early, considering the truncated offseason in which Andy Dalton had to prepare, and the dark cloud that was Carson Palmer lingering over them during the summer.
But are the Bengals for real? Or have they done just enough to topple six fairly lacklustre opponents?
As a Bengals fan, I have to admit that I still don't know how to feel, and before writing this article, I had begun to write 'Why the Pittsburgh Steelers will expose the Cincinnati Bengals'. However, with the interest of being positive, let's take a look at the arguments suggesting that the 2011 Bengals are in fact, for real.
Andy Dalton has shown veteran poise in leading these Bengals on four fourth quarter comebacks this year, and has looked comfortable doing so.
The Bengals have outscored their opponents 126-59 in the second half of games, and that is a great reflection of both the intensity of Mike Zimmer's defense and the fresh, young and hungry new-look Bengals offense.
Dalton may not have the highlight-reel abilities of Cam Newton, but his four years starting at TCU have instilled in him an ability to put his team in a position to win games, something that he has done each week for the Bengals.
The 'Red Rifle' has thrown 10 touchdown passes inside the red zone this season and is yet to be picked off inside of his opponents 20 yard line, a promising stat considering that the offense is ranked 22nd in the league, and that Dalton holds a fairly middle-of-the-road passer rating of 85.0.
While the offense may not be able to win shoot-outs, it is the Bengals No.4-ranked defense that continues to turn match-ups into street fights, with unrelenting pressure, and playmaking skills to boot.
Mike Zimmer's defensive rotation has utilised and built upon the Bengals depth, and has proved to be influential in keeping the defense fresh and productive, especially in the fourth quarter, while the opposing offensive lines have been worn down.
What pervades from the Bengals in 2011 is a sense of balance that was not there before. In 2010 Marvin Lewis stockpiled the offense at the expense of the defense and special teams, and it ended horribly. This year however, the Bengals are producing in every aspect of the game and are feeding off of each other.
With Pacman Jones and Brandon Tate looking better in the return game, and rock-solid kicking and punting from Mike Nugent and Kevin Huber, as well as stand-out moments from Nate Clements with his block of an Adam Vinatieri field-goal attempt, the Bengals' special teams are proving their worth in the limited opportunities they get.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green may not be Matt Stafford and Megatron yet, but with the support of a solid running game, and the playmaking abilities of the defense and special teams, they may not have to be in order to make the playoffs in 2011.
The adage that 'defense wins championships' has become largely redundant in the Aaron Rodgers era, but the Cincinnati Bengals will be hoping that it holds true as they host Pittsburgh in Week 10 and then head to Baltimore in Week 11.
Despite the undeniable strength of the team around him, Andy Dalton will continue to be pointed at as the reason that the Bengals will stink out the second half of the season. Whether that becomes a reality remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, this is not the Cincinnati Bengals any of us have come to know and deride.
Marvin Lewis, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer have done an outstanding job in the early half of 2011, and whether they are for real in 2011 or not, the future is certainly bright for the Cincinnati Bengals.