Can the Bengals Best the Steelers or Ravens?

Over at ESPN, James Walker buys into the emerging conventional wisdom about the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals. He believes they’ve improved — but questions whether they can overcome division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

It is well-documented that Cincinnati added a lot of talented players via the draft and free agency. But I still question if this team is good enough and tough enough to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore four times a year, which ultimately will determine how far the 2009 Bengals go.

I’m not really sure why Walker thinks it necessary that the Bengals win all four games against the Steelers and Ravens. They went 3-1 against them in the regular season in 2005 (dropping one to Pittsburgh) and made the playoffs, after all. Just splitting with each club would level the playing field.

But how likely is even that modest goal? Based on last season, in which the Bengals won fewer than five games while both the Steelers and Ravens went to the playoffs, it might seem far-fetched. But I’m not sure. Last season was an injury train wreck for Cincinnati that doesn’t really provide a fair measuring stick. The year before, 2007, the Bengals beat the Ravens twice while dropping both games against the Steelers. In 2006, Cincinnati split with both teams.

Overall, the Carson Palmer-led Bengals have actually dominated Baltimore, winning six of nine games from 2004 through the opener in 2008. Palmer & Co. have had less luck with Pittsburgh, which has taken six of their eight meetings with Palmer.

All reports have Palmer coming back at 100%. If so, and if the team can stay relatively injury-free, I expect their games against the Steelers and Ravens to more closely resemble the pattern of 2004-2007 than ’08. That doesn’t bode well for their games against Pittsburgh, but I think folks like Walker will be surprised at how quickly they bounce back against Baltimore.

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