Why they will - Lou Anarumo (& the defense as a whole)
Lou Anarumo is a mastermind and the main reason why this team is 5-3 right now. When the offense faltered -- such as against the Rams, Seahawks, and Bills -- Anarumo made sure his unit stood stout and kept the opposing offense at bay.
Many predicted the defense would take a huge step back with the departure of both Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III, as well as Chidobe Awuzie recovering from a torn ACL. While they may not be as dominant as they were last season, they're still the scrappy, bend-but-don't-break defense that stifles elite offenses and makes the big plays when it matters.
The patchwork in the secondary is probably his most impressive accomplishment. As mentioned before, free agency was soured by the departure of two key assets to the defensive side of the ball in Bates and Bell and there were worries that the new guys + a rusty Awuzie coming off injury wouldn't be enough to keep up with the big dogs.
However, that has not been the case. Cam Taylor-Britt has blossomed into a young star as he locks down WR1s from his cornerback position, D.J. Turner has been quietly putting together a solid case for DROY, Dax Hill has turned out to be a good pick and has already made leaps and bounds from a forgettable rookie season, and Mike Hilton is still the best nickelback in the league.
However, it isn't just the secondary, as Anarumo has worked his magic to mold a lethal duo at the linebacker position. Germaine Pratt has become one of the more underrated linebackers in the league and seems to make the biggest plays whenever Cincy needs them (interception in 2021 Wild Card, stripping Travis Kelce last year, interception vs. San Francisco when they were driving this year, forcing the ball out as Buffalo was driving this past Sunday) while the Wyoming wrangler Logan Wilson acts as both a ball hawk in the middle of the field and a deterrent for opposing running backs.
And then, of course, there's the resurgence of the defensive line, which has returned to QB-wrecking form after a down year in 2022. Trey Hendrickson headlines that group, matching his sack total from last season in just eight games, and continues to be a Quarterback's worst nightmare.
There's also the forever underrated Cincinnati kid Sam Hubbard who serves as a nice compliment to Hendrickson on the other edge. On the interior? One of the league's best run-stuffers is D.J. Reader, who is also one of the most underrated players at his position. Right next to him is B.J. Hill, who is on pace to have a career year as he already has 4.0 sacks. His career high for a season is 5.5.
That's not even mentioning rotational guys who have made their impact felt at points throughout the season. These include Cam Sample, Myles Murphy, Zach Carter, Joseph Ossai, Jordan Battle, and Josh Tupou, to name a few. These players are depth pieces who step up when they get called on.
All this to say, even when the offense struggles, this defense can carry the load and keep this team on the winning path, and as long as Lou Anarumo is here (which, we know he will be for at least the rest of this season), this team is always on the prowl. And that includes for the top of the division.