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Why the 3-0 Bengals are Legit AFC Contenders

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Sep 27, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones (82) catches a pass from quarterback Andy Dalton (14) (not pictured) for a touchdown as Baltimore Ravens free safety Kendrick Lewis (23) defends during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals are now 3-0 after a heart-wrenching Week 3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens–so just like in 2014, the Bengals are now undefeated after three weeks. Don’t be mistaken though–this year’s Bengals team is exponentially better than last year’s team. Here’s why:

1. Andy Dalton is no longer a liability

Sep 27, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) celebrates his touchdown run against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

That’s right, I said it. Andy Dalton is a much better quarterback in 2015 than he was in 2014.

Today marks the first time he turned the ball over or took a sack, and while he was strip-sacked for a touchdown and picked off in the end zone, I stand by my statement that Dalton has vastly improved since last season.

Dalton led the Bengals down the field on two comeback drives in the fourth quarter, converting both drives into touchdowns. Dalton has made some throws this season that he hasn’t ever made in his career prior to 2015. He’s connected on several deep strikes; he’s fit the ball into some incredibly tight windows and he’s shown enough poise to throw the ball under pressure in the pocket.

Dalton is a vastly improved quarterback, and even if he has a couple of bad games in 2015 (which have still yet to come, by the way), there’s no disputing his significant improvement from the 2014 season to the 2015 season. Dalton is a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback when surrounded by the right weapons; he certainly has weapons this season in Cincinnati.

2. Cincinnati’s offense is loaded–and healthy

In 2014, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert were already out for the season at this point with season-ending injuries.

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Just three games into the 2015 season, the two players have over 300 combined receiving yards and

five

touchdowns. These two players’ health alone gives the Bengals a significant upgrade at both the wide receiver and tight end positions; Andy Dalton simply didn’t have the arsenal in 2014 that he has in 2015.

In addition, the duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in the running game is something that teams have to game-plan for on a weekly basis. While Jeremy Hill had some success early on in 2014, he wasn’t nearly as much of a threat to opposing defensive coordinators as he is now. And when defenses have to spend a significant amount of time game-planning for these two running backs, they simply can’t allocate an adequate amount of time to game-plan for Andy Dalton and the passing game; this brings me to my next point.

3. Cincinnati is not nearly as dependent on A.J. Green

Sep 27, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) catches a pass for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Cincinnati Bengals defeated Baltimore Ravens 28-24. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

With Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Giovani Bernard and even Mohamed Sanu making plays in the passing game, Cincinnati is deep to the point where it isn’t totally reliant on A.J. Green.

When Green missed a significant amount of time in 2014 due to injury, the Bengals’ offense crumbled. It simply couldn’t stay afloat when its leading receiver was Mohamed Sanu and guys like Greg Little, Brandon Tate and Dane Sanzenbacher were forced to fill in as receivers. Even the team’s starting tight end, Jermaine Gresham, proved to be a major liability for the Bengals, proving inconsistent in the passing game and turning the ball over far too many times.

But with the NFL’s best running back tandem, a top-five tight end, two great complimentary receivers and a solid offensive line, the Bengals’ offense is talented enough to the point where it could win a game or two even without A.J. Green in the lineup.

And when Green is healthy, this offense could be one of the league’s best. Just take a look at his numbers against the Ravens: 10 catches, 227 yards and two touchdowns. Green is an elite receiver; when he’s healthy, the Bengals’ offense is potent.

4. Cincinnati’s defense is no longer a doormat

In 2014, the Bengals’ defense was an absolute train wreck. The team was decimated by injuries on the defensive side of the ball, losing players left and right on a weekly basis.

At one point, the entire starting linebacking corps was hurt, with all three starters missing the Bengals’ Week 7 matchup with the Colts.

And to make matters worse, Geno Atkins still wasn’t 100 percent after enduring an ACL injury in 2013.

With Atkins healthy, Michael Johnson returned from a stint in Tampa Bay and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther more comfortable as a coach, Cincinnati’s defense has vastly improved from 2014. Dre Kirkpatrick has shown tremendous promise as a starting corner, Geno Atkins has returned to dominance and Carlos Dunlap‘s play has elevated–possibly as a result of Atkins’ health. And although the team still has issues tackling, these issues are nowhere near as serious as they were in 2014. The defense is good so far in 2015, and it could get even better when a certain someone is healthy again.

5. Vontaze Burfict could return to action soon

Oct 26, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The defense has vastly improved from its dumpster fire of a 2014 season, but the best news for this unit is that Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict could return to action as soon as Week 7.

Burfict led the league in tackles in 2013; he’s the glue that holds this Bengals defense together, and he still hasn’t even suited up yet!

If the Bengals are playing this well without Burfict, imagine what they can do with Burfict on the field! He’s the best player on the Bengals’ defense outside of Geno Atkins and is a monster when healthy.

Even if Burfict isn’t at 100 percent, he’s significantly better than his backups; Burfict’s return should elevate the Bengals’ already impressive defensive play.

With improvements across the board from a 2014 season in which the injury-riddled Bengals made the playoffs, the 2015 Bengals could be a team to beat in the AFC.

Aside from the Patriots, the Bengals are easily the AFC’s best team. Denver, while talented (especially on defense), is much too reliant on Peyton Manning slinging the ball down the field to win down the stretch; Kansas City still doesn’t throw touchdowns to its wide receivers and the Steelers just lost Ben Roethlisberger to an injury that looks like it could be very serious. This Bengals team is for real, and the AFC looks like it’s wide open for the Bengals’ taking. The Steelers are depleted with Big Ben out indefinitely, the Browns have tons of issues of their own and the Ravens are 0-3; Cincinnati could easily win this division if it can just keep doing what it’s doing on both sides of the ball.

A first-round bye could be a seriously reasonable goal for the Bengals to aim for this season; and who knows, maybe with a bye, the Bengals could finally win a playoff game, or even a Super Bowl.

Next: Cincinnati Bengals Beat Baltimore Ravens 28-24

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