The other day a notification popped up in our workspace. I was informed that an article was in the works that would force us all to accept the notion that the Arizona Cardinals were for real. As the only undefeated team remaining in the NFL at the time, I’d say that’s a true statement. However – I think there’s an even bigger story unfolding in the AFC North.
Seriously? The Bengals??
When people talk of the powerhouses in the AFC in recent years, the Bengals have rarely been a part of the conversation. They haven’t had a winning season since going 12-4 in 2015. Their downturn ultimately led to the (perhaps overdue) departure of head coach Marvin Lewis after the 2018 season. Lewis served as head coach for 16 years, twice as long as any other head coach in franchise history. With Zac Taylor hired to replace Lewis, the Bengals looked to turn things around as quickly as possible.
After hitting the reset button heading into the 2019 season, the Bengals got off to an almost unfathomably horrible start. They didn’t notch a win until Week 13, when they beat the New York Jets 22-6. It would be one of only 2 wins on the season, with the only bright side being that they found themselves with the 1st overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Things Are Looking Up
Just in case you can’t recall (given the year and a half we’ve all endured), the Bengals used their pick on LSU Quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. He was the only rookie QB drafted that year to start in Week 1. After a rather uninspiring performance in his debut, he began to settle in and put up the kind of numbers that had Bengals fans getting excited about the future. While he wasn’t winning a lot, there was reason for optimism in Cincy. Then, Week 11 happened:
Without their franchise QB under center, the Bengals finished the 2020 season with a 4-11-1 record, leaving them 4th in their division for the 3rd consecutive year. This time they sat at #5 going into the 2021 Draft. Given what had happened to Burrow, it was widely assumed that they’d opt for highly regarded offensive tackle Penei Sewell from Oregon. Instead, Cincinnati surprised many by opting to reunite Burrow with his LSU teammate and favorite WR target, Ja’Marr Chase. It was considered a risky move, but has already paid dividends this season. They have almost instantly rekindled their success from college.
The threat that Chase presents whenever he’s on the field has opened up more options for the other offensive weapons at Burrow’s disposal. RB Joe Mixon, TE C.J. Uzomah, and fellow WRs Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are all contributing to an offense that is firing on all cylinders, especially in the last two weeks.
Don’t Forget the Defense
Cincinnati hasn’t been known for its defense for quite some time. It’s been almost a decade since a Bengals defensive unit has performed like the current group. During the offseason the Bengals brought in a bunch of guys – 5 of whom are starters on the defensive side of the football. It’s led to a more physical presence that has slowed opposing offenses. They’ve allowed the 5th fewest points (128) in the league through 7 weeks. And they just held the high octane Baltimore Ravens, led by some guy named Lamar Jackson, to 17 points last week.
The Sky’s The Limit
After only 3 years at the helm, Zac Taylor has playmakers in every phase of the game. They’ve got one of the best QB/WR tandems in the game and a defense that should get better as they continue to gel. The other teams in their division have to take them seriously – as does the rest of the NFL.
Move over, Arizona – you’ve got company.
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