Nov 5, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; A Cincinnati Bengals fan watches from the stands during a game against the Cleveland Browns in the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
The Cincinnati Bengals’ 8-0 start has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 NFL season. Just a year ago, Cincinnati was 5-2-1 at the halfway mark. While the Bengals looked good in 2014, they look even better in 2015.
On offense, the Bengals are loaded. Andy Dalton has come into his own as a top NFL quarterback, Tyler Eifert could be one of the best tight ends in football, A.J. Green has shredded opposing defenses and commanded double-teams weekly, the offensive line has become one of the NFL’s best pass-blocking and run-blocking units and the offense has yet to see Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard truly even take off. Role players like Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and even Brandon Tate have made some huge plays in the passing game, and Ryan Hewitt has performed well as both a blocker and a pass-catcher in the limited action he’s seen.
And on the defensive side of the ball, Cincinnati is almost just as loaded. Geno Atkins is easily a top-three interior defender, Carlos Dunlap shares the league lead in quarterback sacks, Reggie Nelson has three picks, Adam Jones is playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level and guys like Vincent Rey, Michael Johnson, Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga have played huge supporting roles.
And as great as the Bengals defense has played, it has a chance to be even better in the second half of the season.
Vontaze Burfict‘s return has helped–and will continue to help–Cincinnati’s defense transition from good to great. His presence on the field takes Cincinnati’s defense to the next level; players like George Iloka, Dre Kirkpatrick and Leon Hall will be able to focus on locking down opposing pass-catchers and forcing turnovers rather than compensating for mistakes up front.
Cincinnati’s perennially underrated special teams unit has made plays, as well. More than half of Kevin Huber‘s punts have been downed inside the 20-yard-line (he’s the only punter in the league to have pinned opponents inside the 20 on at least half of his punts), Adam Jones is the best returner in football, Cedric Peerman could sneak into the Pro Bowl as a special teamer and long-snapper Clark Harris has yet to make a significant mistake. Even while Mike Nugent has missed a couple of field goals, he’s nailed every key kick and has only missed a single PAT.
The Bengals are loaded. And while it’s highly unlikely that they’ll go 16-0, it’s still a possibility. Only prime time away games against the Arizona Cardinals and the Denver Broncos loom as matchups in which the Bengals won’t be heavily favored, but the Bengals’ play has been dominant enough to instill hope in even the most skeptical members of Who Dey nation.
It’s unreasonable to expect the Bengals to finish 2015 with an undefeated record; but with that being said, who expected Cincinnati to start the season 8-0? Cincinnati’s offense is loaded, its defense is good and getting better and its special teams unit has consistently won the battle of field position. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s best coaching staffs and could easily field at least 10 Pro Bowlers.
At the end of the day, however, I don’t see the Bengals going 16-0. With four remaining prime time matchups, including the two aforementioned away games against quality opponents, I expect Cincinnati to lose one to three of its remaining eight games.
And given that the Bengals’ starting roster has missed a combined three starts, it’s safe to say that Cincinnati has been extremely lucky in terms of health; the reality is that the Bengals will likely miss a few key players down the stretch, just as a result of bad luck.
The good news, however, is that the Bengals are a game up on the Denver Broncos in the quest for a first-round bye, and I believe that Cincy will still lock up the two-seed in the playoffs with a 13-win or 14-win season.