Why Cincinnati is a Legitimate Super Bowl Contender

At the midway point, we, as fans, have a better idea of which teams are contenders, which are pretenders and which have simply fallen flat on their face over the first seven or eight games. One thing is for sure... the Cincinnati Bengals belong in the discussion as a Super Bowl contender.

While teams like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, the New York Giants, and the entire NFC East have limped through the early going, Cincinnati has not only lived up to the preseason hype, but have arguably exceeded it as a team clearly in the drivers seat in the AFC North. Bengal fans have seen Cincinnati play well over the past couple years, but never have they been able to watch realistically thinking this could be their year.

This is the year to take the Bengals seriously.

Sure, it's easy to jump on board with Cincinnati after their dominating 49-9 win against the Jets last Sunday, but there is more to this team than even that performance displays.

- Andy Dalton is playing elite.

I wrote an article a couple weeks ago questioning Dalton's play, pointing to how he needed to start showing improvement and the ability to lead this team to wins when he had to take the team on his back. He has responded to the rough start to the season. In his last three games, Dalton has thrown for over 300 yards in each, 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing, on average, 65% of his throws. He has done so with A.J. Green now back in the gameplan, but also with the emergence of Marvin Jones at the other wideout position. Dalton has the weapons and now is showing the confidence and pure ability that you expect from an upper echelon quarterback. Is he elite? Don't get ahead of yourself... he isn't elite, but if he keeps playing the way he is, he is close enough to elite to carry a team this talented deep into the playoffs.

- A.J. Green and company.

Green is a monster and despite a couple quiet games early on, he is back to being an unstoppable difference maker, and as I also wrote about, it is because of the emergence of new weapons. By Green seemingly fading out of the playbook from Weeks 2-5, the Bengals were forced to get the ball to guys like Jones, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu. Now, with those players playing with experience and confidence, defenses can't simply bottle up Green and suffocate the Bengals' offense. Jones has emerged as a major threat. He isn't going to score four touchdowns a week, but when he was drafted, he reminded many of the former Bengal, Chad Johnson. Jones is a playmaker. Sanu has been relatively quiet, but is still showing the ability to take pressure off Green and I can't emphasize the importance of getting Andrew Hawkins back from short-term IR this week. Hawkins should thrive in a offense flooded with this much talent. That doesn't even begin to dive into the impact the Eifert and Bernard could still have as the season goes along. The point is though, that the receiving core is now more than simply Green, which allows Dalton to thrive.

- The run game is there.

Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have been solid, but with the exception of a couple incredible Bernard plays, neither has really taken over a game yet through the run game. That doesn't mean they can't though. As the weather gets colder the run game is more and more important and with the combination of Green-Ellis and Bernard, the Bengals run game is formidable. Both players compliment the other's style very well, which allows the Cincinnati to keep opposing defenses honest. Bernard is only just getting started as he will be more heavily featured towards the end of the season.

- The defensive line.

Arguably the best in the NFL, they have lived up to the hype and should only continue to dominant opposing offensive lines. Opponents struggle to run the ball and without a refined, quick passing game, the pressure Cincinnati gets can be very disruptive. This ability to control a game in the trenches has already won the Bengals a couple games this year against teams like Green Bay and New England, but if they can continue that strength, they have the ability to rush the passer like former Super Bowl winning New York Giants teams.

- Defensive depth.

Injuries have hit the Bengals hard this season with Leon Hall gone for the year, Rey Maualuga out for a couple weeks, the early season loss of Emmanuel Lamur and some ongoing issues with other secondary members, however, the Bengals are a deep and talented team. Each loss simply brings a new talent into the fold to be coached up by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. This unit is not only playing lights out to this point, but is also deep enough to continue to impact games as they deal with the bumps and bruises of the NFL season.

The talent on Cincinnati's roster is some of the best in the league and if the Bengals stay focused, which has been a problem in the past, they should continue to display that and play with confidence. If they do, a first-round bye in the playoffs isn't out of the question with how the AFC is beating up on itself right now. You don't want to jump ahead, but Cincinnati should be considered a major player in the second half of this season. Of course, they need to continue to demonstrate that they are for real tonight in Miami.

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