What's going on with the Bengals? One of the most hyped teams in the league coming into the season, the Bengals rewarded their believers early by starting out 3-0 both straight up and against the spread. Since then, however, it has been a rough ride in Cincinnati. They have gone 0-3-1 in their last four games ATS, and they have won just one straight up, a three-point win over the equally mystifying Carolina Panthers. With the roster they have, and the start they had, I certainly wasn't alone in feeling like the Bengals were a team I was going to ride hard and often this season. Now I'm wondering if I should just stay way.
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The game that started Cincinnati's troubles was week 4 against New England. The Bengals were favored by 5.5, but anyone that saw the ruthless beating the Pats gave Minnesota on Monday night knows that New England is much, much better than they were given credit for to start the season. The fact that the Bengals were beaten by 25 points, then, is still concerning, but by itself no real reason to panic. Their offense wasn't bad by any means, but there was something not quite right, either. We'll touch on that more in a second.
The next three games were far more concerning for Bengals backers. They had a bye week to prepare for the winless and struggling Bucs, who were fielding a very green QB. They came out as flat as a team can come out, and they lost the game by a flattering 14-13 score. The defense made Tampa's rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski look like a seasoned veteran.
They won the next game against Carolina, but the 17-14 game showed that neither team was operating at their best. Then came the Atlanta game last week. They lost by two, and they let Michael Vick continue on his re-invention tour as more than a running back that takes snaps.
What the team has lacked in all four of their last games is a killer instinct. They haven't looked like they want to do enough to win. With the possible exception of New England, they matched and outclassed each of their opponents. Their QB is better, their running game is as good or better, their wide receiver corps is certainly better. Despite that, they haven't seemed to want to step on a team's throat and let them know that the Bengals are not to be messed with. They lost three games by a combined six points. They let Bruce Gradkowski drive the field for a winning touchdown as time was running out. They didn't take their first, and only, lead from the Panthers until halfway through the fourth quarter. They had 17 points at halftime against Atlanta, but then they let the Falcons go on a 16-3 run to take control. A team this talented and well coached should not be losing like that. Last year the Bengals only had two games all season decided by a field goal, and none by fewer. Their last three have all been by a field goal or less.
The first place you have to look to figure out the problems is Carson Palmer. Unlike what's going on in Pittsburgh, the QB cannot simply be blamed for most of the problems. Palmer is, by most standards, having a decent season. He's completing 63 percent of his passes, has 11 touchdowns against just four picks, and has a solid 93.4 rating. He's a good quarterback. The problem is that last year, before he got his knee bent in a way it isn't supposed to bend, he was much, much more than just a good quarterback. He was aggressive, he was daring, he made clutch plays and he converted when he needed to.
This year, Palmer isn't exactly tentative or nervous, but he isn't exactly Carson Palmer, either. Take the New England game, for example. His line was 20-of-35 for 245 yards and no TDs or interceptions. He didn't cause his team any troubles, or make any bad mistakes, but he didn't take the calculated risks or push the envelope in the ways that he did last year, either. He played safe, and safe doesn't win for a team like the Bengals. He also fumbled twice, which was uncharacteristic, and again shows how he just isn't quite right.
Cincinnati's biggest weapon is their depth at wide receiver. Chad Johnson is as talented as anyone in the league, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry could both step into a No. 1 role on some teams in the league. The three of them have been fine this year, but they certainly haven't been as good as they can be. Houshmandzadeh has played the two best games of the group - against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Henry missed four games but has been solid when he has played. Johnson has been good by normal standards, but just a shadow of what he was last year.
Some of the blame for the receiving blandness lies with Palmer and the problems he is having. Some, though, rest on Johnson's shoulders. I like the guy, and I find him funny, but if you are going to be that big of a jackass you have to back it up. This year he seems to be more about how he is going to get into the papers for what he says or does than for how he plays.
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The offense will get better. All the tools are there. Palmer might be right physically, but the body heals faster than the mind, and I still think it will take a while for him to get confident and comfortable again. Johnson needs to grow up, but an improved Palmer will help that. The team still doesn't have a scary or particularly effective defense, but they didn't last year, either, so I can't worry about that.
The next three weeks - at Baltimore, San Diego, at New Orleans - aren't as kind to the Bengals as they may have hoped. These games will be a very good test, though. If the Bengals are going to salvage this season, and show that they are legitimate and worth a bet, then they are going to have to perform over this next stretch. They need to prove themselves again before I get too excited.