The Cincinnati Bengals have had their fair share of struggles this season. They opened 0-2, dealt with a slow start from Joe Burrow as he adjusted to the way teams defended him while being brutalized behind suspect offensive-line play, and then had to learn how to play for a stretch without star receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who has missed a month with a hip injury.
Yet here they are after 12 weeks, tied for first place, winners of three straight and seemingly ready to once again be a playoff team and potential division winner. Thanks to an impressive 20-16 road victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, the Bengals are 7-4 and surging at the right time.
Super Bowl loser hangover? Maybe they are ready to defy that notion. At least it looks that way.
The Bengals are known as a pretty pass-first team, with Burrow and his skillful receivers able to put up big numbers. But that wasn't the case against the Titans. It was a physical, ugly game that forced the Bengals to win a different way.
They beat up the bully.
The Titans are known as perhaps the most physical team in the league. They are keyed by the power running of Derrick Henry and a defense that can attack the quarterback. But Sunday, the Bengals limited Henry to 38 yards on 17 carries and the Titans had one sack. Burrow threw for 270 yards, one touchdown and no picks, but he also ran nine times for 32 yards.
Just as the Bengals might be getting comfortable about their ascension to being tied for the top spot in the AFC North, here comes the Kansas City Chiefs in a monster game this Sunday. The Bengals beat the Chiefs twice last season, the last time in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game.
Beating them three straight will be a real challenge, even if the Bengals are riding high. There is a chance Chase will be back this week, which will help liven up the offense. It's likely this week's game will be more pretty than ugly in terms of offense with these two teams.
No matter what happens, the Bengals showed against the Titans that they can win in a slugfest, which is a good sign for down the road. As they roll into December, the Bengals are now eighth in my Power Rankings, with that 0-2 start way in the rear-view mirror.
The Chiefs are the league's top-ranked team, which makes Sunday another prove-it game for the Bengals. Win it, and they will certainly be viewed as a Super Bowl contender again. Lose, and the early troubles might be back at the forefront. But at least they showed they can win ugly against the Titans.
Those are the games teams have to win at some point, even if pretty and passing are the norms for Burrow and the Bengals. The toughness was on display in Nashville, the same toughness that helped them shock people to get to a Super Bowl last year. They might look gaudy as a team -- fun to watch -- but the Bengals can also bully the bully. That matters. That's why they are again a threat in the AFC.
|They face a huge road conference game this week at Cincinnati against the Bengals as they try to avenge last year's loss in the AFC title game. The defense will be tested.
|That running game is potent. They will be tough to stop. But the defense has run game problems that have to be addressed.
|They have been rolling on offense, but they face a stiff test this week at San Francisco. Can Tua Tagovailoa keep it going?
|The loss of Von Miller for a period of time will impact the defense in a big way. They have to hope he's not out for a long time.
|After losing to the Packers, they've bounced back with two straight victories to show they can be a deep playoff team. They are good on both lines.
|Kirk Cousins played well in the prime-time victory over the Patriots. That was a heck of a bounce-back for this team.
|On a day when their offense wasn't quite working, the defense came up big against the Saints. Now they need to be even better against Miami.
|Winning at Tennessee is never easy, which says a lot about their victory. For a reward? Here come the Chiefs.
|They have to get the offense going in terms of the passing game -- or else. The defense let them down late at Jacksonville.
|They still hold a big lead in the division, but the loss to the Bengals won't help playoff seeding. The offense found out how tough it can be when Derrick Henry can't run it.
|Mike White played well in his first start this season to lead the Jets past the Bears. Zach who? Is it sustainable with Mike White?
|That was a potential season-saving victory at Arizona with the late-game drive to win it. Justin Herbert made the plays when he had to have them in that game.
|Don't look now, but they would be in the playoffs if they started today. They've ripped off three straight victories behind their defense and running game.
|The good news is that the offense showed some life against the Vikings. But what happened to the defense? Now they get Josh Allen and the Bills.
|They are spiraling right now with two straight losses. One has to wonder if this is who they are as a team since they are limited in terms of playmakers.
|The defense really let them down in the loss to the Raiders. That was a problem early this season that came back in a big way.
|They aren't officially done as Deshaun Watson gets ready to play for the first time. Jacoby Brissett did a nice job when he played in his spot, but now it's Watson time.
|Losing at Washington isn't a good thing, but in the NFC South they are still alive. They have competed in almost every game this season, which is a good thing.
|They lose games and stay in first place. It's amazing. The division is so bad, but they need to play better.
|That was a big-boy moment for Trevor Lawrence to beat the Ravens with a late-game drive for a touchdown. This team will be a playoff team in 2023.
|The offense didn't score a point against the 49ers. Is it time to go back to Jameis Winston?
|They had their winning streak snapped on Thanksgiving, which means it's all about next year for them. They've made outstanding progress this season.
|Josh Jacobs was outstanding against Seattle. He saved the game as the defense was horrible. At 4-7, they aren't dead yet.
|By losing to the Eagles, the death blow came for their season. Now with Aaron Rodgers hurt, it might be time to shut him down.
|They are done for this season, barring a miracle. Is coach Kliff Kingsbury safe? Even with a big deal, he might not be.
|Kenny Pickett has done some nice things as the starter for this team. He is going to be a good one in the coming years.
|The Jeff Saturday bump is over. They won one and lost two. Maybe it's not so easy to coach in this league.
|The move to Sam Darnold seemed to bring some life to the offense. Steve Wilks has done a nice job.
|The offense is lifeless without all the stars, including Matt Stafford. This season is over. The Super Bowl hangover is real.
|Without Justin Fields against the Jets, they just weren't the same team. They have to hope he's back soon, but they also have to make sure he's healthy for next year.
|The offense is terrible. One has to wonder if coach Nathaniel Hackett will be back next season. It's not looking good.
|So I guess Davis Mills wasn't the only problem. They just aren't good in a lot of areas, which can't be fixed this season. Now here comes Deshaun Watson back to Houston.