After three years of fighting against their history, which followed 12 years of fighting against their ineptitude, the Bengals are back to living the good life and fighting against the realities of the NFL. It's what we've always wanted.
But it's such a struggle. The schedule is a lot tougher, the opponents are more serious and sometimes you take injuries.
The injured list is bigger news for a good football team because teams with more to lose lose more when they lose good players. The Bengals are out two key offensive linemen — left tackle Levi Jones for several weeks and center Rich Braham for maybe the rest of the season. They're rebuilding an offensive line on the fly.
In times like these, when your quarterback can't drop seven steps and your running back doesn't see the usual opportunities, your football team needs to win with defense and special teams. The offense won't break plays so often. In essence, we're watching a different team this year.
The Bengals can't do it this year with glitz and glam, because the realities of the NFL won't allow it. The question isn't if the Bengals are one of the NFL's elite teams but if they can surmount the challenges and win often enough.
Doubtless, the Bengals will become a much smarter, tougher football team by Jan. 1. The question is if they'll still be playing.
Last year was fun. This year is reality. The Bengals need to be better just to be as good, and one has to give them credit, because the signs are coming into focus.
Viewing the Bengals through the prism of league rankings, we see an ordinary football team sitting in the middle of almost every category. On the field, we've seen four wins and two losses corresponding to their four good games and two bad games.
On Oct. 22, when the Bengals pulled out a 17-14 win against Carolina at Paul Brown Stadium, we saw a blueprint. Offensively, the Bengals flailed around until the middle of the second quarter without a first down, then began effectively mixing the short passing game with Rudi Johnson's pounding on the ground. Defensively, the Bengals held on just tight enough, excepting a pass coverage breakdown gifting Carolina with a touchdown late in the first half.
Carolina isn't the world's greatest offensive team, of course, but the Bengals didn't cut a lot of slack. The Bengals took away the run in the second half and finished the game allowing only 60 rushing yards. The Panthers mounted only two first downs over the first 25 minutes of the second half.
The Bengals played ball control, holding possession for 21:36 of the second half. And they controlled the ball with the passing game, notching 11 first downs through the air after halftime. Rather than tax the offensive line with deep passes and rushing plays, they ran just enough to keep the defense honest and Johnson did his part with 101 yards in 26 carries. Otherwise, the Bengals played a fast developing dink-and-dunk game to move the chains.
The Bengals kept themselves in it until, in the end, their playmakers made plays. They finally completed a deep ball just when they needed it, and no one saw it coming. Facing fourth-and-one on the Carolina 35 in the fourth quarter, Palmer threw 32 yards to Chad Johnson, setting up a touchdown to give the Bengals their 17-14 lead. Later, when Carolina drove down field, Kevin Kaesviharn picked Jake Delhomme in the end zone, the second time this year Kaesviharn has saved a game with an interception.
We see a football team that's grinding it out. The Bengals haven't lost their verve, but they've lost players and lost their training wheels.
Last year, we saw the Bengals kind of taking it easy from the middle of December after they trounced the NFL's junior varsities on their way to a division title. This year, the NFL gave them the second toughest schedule and the football gremlins gave them two injuries on the offensive line, just so the quarterback coming back from knee surgery doesn't feel too protected. And the NFL gave them that episode in Tampa Bay, where a clean sack that should have sealed their victory turned out to be a roughing penalty ending in a loss.
Nothing is easy this year. The entire remainder of their schedule is murder, except for a home game against Oakland Dec. 10.
The Bengals' next four opponents — Atlanta, Baltimore, San Diego and New Orleans — are a combined 17-7. Then they go to Cleveland, where the Browns will be as ready as they can be. Then Baltimore comes to Cincinnati, followed by Oakland. The season ends against Indianapolis and Denver (a combined 11-1), with Pittsburgh's here on Dec. 31 probably to determine if the Bengals will continue.
Quite fortunately for the Bengals, they're not fighting uphill. They don't need miracles, nor do they especially need a hot streak — and that's really good news, because the miracle fairy is working against them this season and no one can sensibly be expected to tack up long winning streaks against this slate of opposition.
Among the next four opponents, San Diego is No. 1 in NFL total defense and Baltimore is No. 3. Later, the Bengals play Denver, which is No. 4. Among the next four opponents, San Diego is No. 4 in NFL total offense, Atlanta is No. 5 and New Orleans is No. 6. Later, the Bengals play Indianapolis, which is No. 3.
Should the Bengals beat Oakland and Cleveland, splitting the other games, they'll finish the regular season 10-6 and we should look on the season favorably, whether they make the playoffs or not. And if they make the playoffs at 10-6, they'll enter as an extremely dangerous contender because they won't make it without beating other teams that are in the playoffs.
Indeed, this entire season for the Bengals is one extended run of playoffs. That's the price you pay in the NFL for being good.