The Cincinnati Bengals are talking playoffs. Imagine that.
Yeah, professional sports' losingest franchise in the 1990's is over .500 seven games into the season for the first time in 11 years. The 4-3 Bengals, fresh off a bye week, are coming to Jacksonville this weekend to finish the first half of their season and announce to the rest of the football world they are officially postseason contenders.
How did this happen? Isn't this the same 4-12 Bengals team from last season?
Well, most of it is the same team, but quarterback Jon Kitna is one of a few key additions. Fullback Lorenzo Neal was plucked from Tennessee and Neal has only added to running back Corey Dillon's success. And first-round draft choice Justin Smith has provided a big-time pass-rusher and play-maker at defensive end.
No one is saying the Bengals are for real, yet, but it is clearly a team on the rise. They announced that fact in week two when they upset the Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens. No longer are the Bengals an automatic win on every opponent's schedule.
"It's nice to be on a team that still has a chance at this point of the season, instead of being banished so quickly to the basement of the NFL," veteran tight end Tony McGee said. "We don't have to do anything spectacular. That's what gives us a shot. We don't have to score 41 points every game."
The defense is improved, but it remains in the bottom third of the league against the run, and that's a problem the Bengals may not be able to overcome in the big-back, run-conscious AFC Central. Fortunately for the Bengals, they have one of those big backs and one of the league's very best rushing attacks. The Bengals can hold the ball with their running game and keep their defense off the field, which is what they'll be trying to do against the Jaguars this Sunday.
Corey Dillon is off to a blazing start, following a 1,435-yard season last year. He's at 625 yards through seven games this year and is fresh off a 96-yard touchdown gallop in Detroit. Dillon remains the heart and soul of the Bengals offense, but now he has a quarterback capable of drive-sustaining pass-completions.
Kitna, who came to the Bengals in free agency from Seattle, hasn't set the league on fire, but he's thrown for 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns. His 204 yards passing in the win over Detroit was a perfect complement to Dillon's dominance. No longer can opponents stack against the run.
"If a team is going to put eight guys up and do all that stuff and blitz on first down, you have to make them pay. They're saying, 'You're not good enough to throw the ball,' and we have to do that," Kitna said.
"You put eight in the box and we can hurt you passing," Dillon said.
Kitna's targets are McGee and wide receivers Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick, and Kitna operates behind a solid offensive line that is led by tackle Willie Anderson.
"When we're on a roll, we're one of the best offensive lines in the league blocking against eight-man fronts, and (against the Lions) we had a passing game they had to respect," Anderson said.
The strength of the Bengals defense is the ability of linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons to create turnovers. The Bengals have caused 13 turnovers, fifth-best in the AFC, and have a plus-three turnover differential.
"We got a coach here talking playoffs," Simmons said of Dick LeBeau, who replaced Bruce Coslet early last season and has since captured the loyalty and dedication of his players. The Bengals would seem to be a unified bunch for the first time since all of the losing began.
"I'm talking about winning the division," Kitna said. "If we want to win our division, we have to try to win three or four games in a row. That's a different mindset. I don't know if we have that yet."
"If we look at records, that's going to be the start of our demise. We're not that good yet," cornerback Artrell Hawkins said.
"We've got to be careful because Jacksonville and Tennessee are two teams we've traditionally had problems with. I like our chances now. I think it's the best shot we've had against them ever," Hawkins added of the Bengals' next two games.