Halfway through the National Football League season, the Cincinnati Bengals are sitting in first place in the AFC’s Central Division, secure in the knowledge that they will still be there next week, regardless of the result of Sunday’s showdown against the defending division champion Cleveland Browns.
Such are the comforts of a two-game lead at mid-season, an edge that makes this showdown a lot more crucial for the Browns than it is for the Bengals.
The Cincinnati Bengals in first place by two games? What is going on here?
This is a team whose trademark always seemed to be travail. Two years ago, the Bengals went 10-6 only to miss the playoffs because of the NFL’s convoluted tie-breaking procedure, even though they thumped the playoff-bound 10-6 New York Jets, 52-21, in the season’s final game.
Last year, Cincinnati struggled through a 4-11 season, losing four games by a field goal or less and three more by a touchdown or less, despite the fifth best offense and No. 8 defense in the league.
Not only did they lose, but they lost in the most fascinating fashion.
A scrapbook of the season would look this way:
Snapshot: Leading, 26-20, in the final minute against San Francisco with the ball on their 25, instead of punting on fourth down or taking a safety, the Bengals tried for a first down. The play failed. The ball went over on downs with four seconds to play and that was all the time Joe Montana needed to hit Jerry Rice for the winning touchdown. Final score: San Francisco 27, Cincinnati 26.
Snapshot: In their next game, Cincinnati’s strike replacement team led San Diego 9-0 after three quarters. Final score: San Diego 10, Cincinnati 9.
Snapshot: In the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh, the Bengals led 20-10. The clock ran out before the field goal team could get on the field at the end of the game. Final score: Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 20.
Snapshot: With less than six minutes to play against Houston, the Bengals were sitting on a 29-14 lead. Final score: Houston 31, Cincinnati 29.
Snapshot: At the half against New Orleans, Cincinnati had a two touchdown lead, 24-10. Final score: New Orleans 41, Cincinnati 24.
Are you detecting a pattern here? Coach Sam Wyche did. “The word on us was, ‘Keep going after the Bengals and they’ll fold,’ ” he said. “We did then. We don’t now.”
Somehow Wyche hung on to his job after that debacle of a season -- some suspect because the budget-conscious Bengals were not interested in paying off the last year of his contract while someone else was coaching -- and promised better days ahead.
“Deep down, I know we’re a good football team,” he said before this season. “We’re good enough to win a lot of games.”
And they have.
There was a six-game winning streak to start the season, including a first confrontation 24-17 victory over Cleveland. After a loss to New England in Week 7, the Bengals bounced back with a 44-21 dismantling of Houston last week.
Much of turnaround has revolved around quarterback Boomer Esiason, who in the past was often at odds with Wyche but now seems on the same wave length as the coach.
“He’s clicking with the offense,” Wyche said. “His supporting cast is doing their job. Boomer has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. If you give this guy time to throw and room to follow through on his motion, he’s as good as anybody playing the game.”
At the moment, in fact, he’s better than anybody, ranked No. 1 in passing for the season’s first eight games.
Esiason led the AFC with 3,321 yards passing and five 300-yard games last year, but had just 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. In just eight games this season, he already has 17 TDs and half of his 10 interceptions came in the Bengals’ lone loss.
And Esiason is confident that the first half Bengal burst is no temporary thing. “This team is going places,” he said. “We’ve been kicked around and finally, we’re getting redemption.”
Wyche’s offense, often sprinkled with gimmicky plays in the past, has stuck to basic football this season. “And guess what,” a tickled Esiason said. “It works.”
That nuts and bolts attack has gotten a welcome boost from the Bengal defense, not always the team’s most dependable unit. Young cornerbacks Lewis Billups and Eric Thomas have eight interceptions between them, flourishing on man-to-man coverages. And there are few strong safeties the size of 6-foot-3, 230-pound David Fulcher.
They and people like nose tackle Tim Kumrie, defensive end Skip McClendon and free safety Solomon Wilcotts were all second round or lower draft choices, who are maturing together. More glamorous No. 1 choices like Jason Buck and Rickey Dixon held out the last two years and reported late. Both have specialty jobs on Cincinnati’s defense, Buck as a pass rusher, Dixon as a nickel back in passing situations.
“They’ve become a very impressive defensive football team,” Cleveland coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “Their corners are playing very, very well. They’re going to a lot more man-to-man coverage. I think they feel comfortable in that part of it. When you look at that defensive football team, you sense a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
The confidence comes from winning, something the Bengals have been doing with regularity this season.
“We’re in a new era right now,” Wyche said. “We’re beyond the stage where we sneak up on folks. We’re beyond the stage where everyone is saying, ‘Well, they’re not as good as their record, wait and see, next week they’re going to get whipped.’ We’re right now at the point where whoever we play is playing the big game. We’re the guys they want to knock off.”
It’s your turn to try, Cleveland.