If the playoffs started today, the Cincinnati Bengals, with tiebreakers considered, would be the top seed in the AFC and have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That's right, Rick Reilly, these Bengals whom you insisted couldn't beat a WAC team in your preseason evaluation are tied for the top spot in the conference halfway through the season.
Thanks to Pittsburgh's loss last night to Baltimore (I always enjoy typing Pittsburgh and loss in the same sentence) the Bengals and Ravens are tied for the best record in the AFC. The Bengals, however, have only one loss in the conference while both the Ravens' losses have come within the AFC.
For those who insist the Bengals progress has come at the expense of poor teams (Cincinnati has four wins against teams with losing records) consider these other mitigating factors:
1. The Bengals have done this while starting a rookie quarterback, an entirely new set of receivers (including the loss for the season of returning catch leader Jordan Shipley), and a brand new offense without benefit of any off season workouts.
2. The Bengals have played five of their first eight games on the road. They are 4-1 away from Paul Brown Stadium.
3. Yesterday's win at Tennessee came against the same Titans team that drubbed Baltimore 26-13 in week two.
4. Cincinnati has won five straight games for the first time since the Super Bowl year of 1988, all coming after two heartbreaking losses, at Denver and at home to San Francisco.
The hated Pittsburgh Steelers limp into Paul Brown Stadium for a tussle on Sunday that will go a long way toward cementing the 2011 fortunes for both teams. For Pittsburgh, coming off the loss to Baltimore (yeah, it feels good) it's win or fall more than a game off the pace of both the Ravens and the Bengals. For Cincinnati, it's an opportunity to ensure they'll head to Baltimore the next week playing for the outright divisional lead.
The Bengals will half of their remaining games against either the Steelers or the Ravens. They will also play five of those eight at home.
These young Bengals have proven a lot over the previous eight weeks of Sundays. Now they need to prove they are not only resilient, but tough enough to stay on top. To this point, they've been thriving on being under appreciated. Now the heat of the spotlight is turning on them this week with the Steelers coming to town. The heat will only get greater as the season goes on. We'll know around 4:00 next Sunday whether this Bengals squad has broad enough shoulders to bear the weight.
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