Snap Judgments: The surprising Bengals, Ravens' problems, more
At 4-1 and in first place in the AFC North, Cincinnati is this year's surprise
An every-second-counts approach has been the winning formula for Cincinnati
Baltimore is starting to pay for a pass defense that continues to be porous
Musings, observations and the occasional Week 5 insight as we adjust our TV's vertical hold to handle those hideous brown and mustard-colored vertically-striped socks the Broncos hopefully will put back into the time capsule after their showdown with the Patriots late Sunday afternoon ...
No more calls, we have a winner. With apologies to the giddy 5-0 Denver Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals are officially the surprise team of the NFL's 2009 season after five weeks, and their 17-14 win at Baltimore in an AFC North first-place showdown convinces me of their legitimacy once and for all. Consider this: At 4-1, the Bengals have already matched their victory total from their entire 2008 season (4-11-1).
Facing an Ravens team intent on making someone pay for last week's embittering loss at New England, the Bengals traded punches with Baltimore and then -- as they've done in all four of their victories this season -- found a way to get it done when the game went down to the wire. These Bengals don't do anything easily. All five of their games this season have been decided by seven points or less, and they've won three in a row by scoring in the game's final minute. In the process, they've developed a tough, resilient whatever-it-takes mentality, and suddenly their earlier wins at Green Bay and home against Pittsburgh don't seem the least bit fluky.
In beating their third different division opponent by three points in consecutive weeks -- Steelers, at Cleveland, at Baltimore -- the Bengals have proven they're not going to beat themselves like so many Cincinnati squads in the past. And at 4-1 overall, 3-0 in the AFC North, and 3-0 on the road, Marvin Lewis' club has plenty of ceiling room remaining.
The Bengals now return home to Paul Brown Stadium and they won't leave for more than a month. Houston, Chicago and Baltimore all make the trip to Cincinnati in the coming four weeks, with the Bengals' Week 8 bye sandwiched in there as well. Cincinnati doesn't play again on the road until Nov. 15 at Pittsburgh, meaning it has a shot to be 7-1 and maybe even in command of the division by the time its rematch with the Steelers rolls around.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer did his part once again, hitting receiver Andre Caldwell for the game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining to cap an 80-yard, 11-play drive that began with 2:15 left. But the Bengals defense, playing their hearts out for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose wife, Vikki, died suddenly Thursday night, deserves so much of the credit for this nail-biting win.
Zimmer's unit held Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to just 186 yards passing, picked him off twice and sacked him twice. Baltimore, which had resembled an offensive juggernaut in racing to a 3-0 start this season, produced just 12 first downs, with 82 yards of rushing and 257 total yards. The Ravens were just 3 of 12 on third and fourth downs.
Another reason to believe in the Bengals? They can run the ball, and control the clock. The re-born Cedric Benson continued his renaissance with 120 yards rushing on 27 carries, including a late-third quarter 28-yard touchdown run that gave Cincinnati its first lead at 10-7. That snapped Baltimore's streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 39 games, dating to December 2006. Not since the Bengals' Rudi Johnson gouged the Ravens for 114 yards in late November 2005 had Baltimore given up triple digits in rushing against an AFC North opponent.
When you throw in Cincinnati's season-ending three-game winning streak last December, the Bengals have now won seven of their past eight games, and maybe the best thing that ever happened to them was that unlucky Week 1 bounce of the ball at home against Denver. Rather than demoralize them, it served to remind them to play 60 minutes each and every week. For a month now, that every-second-counts approach has been the winning formula for Cincinnati.
All of us who smugly predicted gloom and doom in Denver this season owe the Broncos and rookie head coach Josh McDaniels a super-sized mea culpa. That was a belief-inducing win over the Patriots on Sunday, and if there are any Broncos doubters at this point, they're a rapidly dwindling group.
I know I've cited Denver's brutal October-November schedule for the last time this season. The Broncos are now 2-0 with wins over the Cowboys and Patriots at home during that challenging eight-game stretch, and I don't think they're going to fear any opponent at this point.
And while we're at it, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton has been everything so far that McDaniels thought he would be when he made the Jay Cutler trade with Chicago. Orton just wins games, and not many people were willing to buy that rationale when the more talented Cutler was sent packing.
With consecutive losses to the Patriots and Bengals, John Harbaugh's Ravens (3-2) face their first true stretch of adversity since an early-season three-game losing streak last year. Baltimore is starting to pay heavily for a pass defense that continues to be porous, and the Ravens defense uncharacteristically surrendered 142 yards rushing and 403 yards of total offense. Can it be that we've all lived long enough to see Baltimore's defense as the Ravens' weaker link?
And don't look now, but things don't get easier for the Ravens in their next three games: at Minnesota, bye week, Denver, and the rematch at Cincinnati. Baltimore is tied with the Steelers (3-2) for second place in the AFC North, a game behind Cincinnati. But the hang-tough portion of the season has arrived for the Ravens.
My brain can't even really fully process this, but the Browns actually won a game Sunday in windy Buffalo in which their starting quarterback, Derek Anderson, was 2 of 17 for 23 yards passing with one interception. Cleveland had one of its two field goals on the board even before Anderson had completed a pass.
A lifetime contract in Cleveland no doubt awaits Anderson. But if you're Browns backup Brady Quinn, where's your self-esteem level about now? You can't beat out that guy?
I would say losing 6-3 to the hapless Browns at home is your basic firing offense if you're the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Who knows, maybe Bills owner Ralph Wilson holds off on lowering the boom on Dick Jauron until Buffalo's Week 9 bye, and maybe Jauron survives all season.
But could anyone blame Wilson if he says enough's enough after Sunday's debacle, which dropped the beleaguered Bills to 1-4? Good luck to the Bills in whipping up interest in that Week 13 home game against the Jets in Toronto. This might just be the low point of Buffalo's entire lost decade.
NFL Truth & Rumors