Midway through the season, the Cincinnati Bengals, despite their 5-3 record, sit at the bottom of what is decidedly the best division in the NFL. However, despite being last in the AFC North, mostly thanks to Joe Burrow's calf injury and yet another slow start to the season, it isn't inconceivable to think that this team could three-peat as division champions, as they have rattled off four wins in a row after an abysmal 1-3 start to their 2023 campaign.
As always, the AFC North is a tight race (hence, the Bengals being in last place despite having a winning record), and it likely won't be decided until the final week of the regular season. It won't be easy to win the division but, then again, when has it ever been? It's not like this is the NFC South.
The Bengals are very capable of rebounding from a slow start, they showed that in spades last season. The question is, will their efforts will be enough to become the first team to win the AFC North three times in a row?
Let's look at three reasons why the Bengals will (and two reasons why they won't) win the AFC North.
Why they will - They get stronger coming out of the bye week
The Bengals have seemed to make it a habit the last few years to jump out to a slow start only to right the ship and play their best football coming out of the bye week. It was a little less noticeable in 2021, especially when you look back at it as they were 5-4 heading into the bye and were 5-3 coming out of it.
However, one of those losses was in the last week of the season when they were resting all of their starters and they throttled the Steelers at home, convincingly disposed of a Raiders squad they'd later see in the Wild Card round, and upset the Kansas City Chiefs with a last-second field goal to secure the division title.
In 2022, after getting out to a slow 0-2 start, the Bengals went into the bye week with the same record, though this time didn't lose a single game for the rest of the season, finishing with an incredible 12-4 record on route to their second-straight division title. While the postseason ultimately ended in a crushing loss in the AFC Championship game, this was the most impressive regular season they have had in a long time.
They made it further in the playoffs in 2021, but that regular season was filled with inconsistency even after the bye week. In 2022, it was all business as they rode an eight-game win streak into January football.
That brings us to this year. Granted, it's an incomplete sample size as we're only nine weeks through the season and two removed from the bye, but they seem to be sticking to the trend in 2023 as well. After starting 1-3 and looking completely outmatched in all three losses, Cincy got their record back up to .500 with two straight wins heading into the bye and then came out with back-to-back statement wins against two teams who are (or, at least, were) considered title contenders.
You know the saying: Once is an accident, twice a coincidence, and three times is a pattern. If recent history has shown anything, it's that the Bengals are arguably the best team coming out of the bye week. If their hot streak continues, there's no reason to believe they won't be champions of the North for the third time in a row.