The morning of November 5 probably wasn’t a great one in the Cincinnati Bengals clubhouse. A 3-1 start to the season had, in five short weeks, turned into a tailspin. Four straight losses, a streak which included two divisional losses and three leads lost in the fourth quarter, had the Bengals falling out of the AFC North race and the conference’s playoff picture.
Now, Cincinnati is very much back in it. They currently hold down the 7th seed in the AFC, tied with the Steelers by record but trailing due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. After putting a hurting on the Giants, Chiefs and Raiders the past three weeks, the Bengals are set up for a serious run. Their next three games come against sub-.500 teams, and after that they’ll get a chance to bump heads with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final two weeks of the regular season.
So how did the Bengals end their slump and turn their season around?
In the Bengals 3-1 start, we saw a lot of good from second-year quarterback Andy Dalton. He had an 8:4 touchdown to interception ratio, three games with a passer rating over 95 and a command of the offense he had shown flashes of as a rookie. But when Dalton hit a rough patch, so did the Bengals. Dalton threw seven picks in the four-game skid, against only six touchdowns. His completion percentage dropped off sharply, too. He had been connecting with receivers on 67.5 percent of throws in the first quarter of the season, but that dropped down to 61 percent during that losing streak.
During Cincinnati’s current win streak, Dalton has cut out the interceptions entirely while throwing for nine touchdowns. A big reason for his efficiency could very well be that the Bengals are having to throw much less. In each of the three games, the team jumped out to first quarter leads and were able to control the clock using their rushing attack while allowing Dalton to pick his spots.
Receivers Running Wild
One of the Bengals’ biggest questions at the outset of the season was which receiver (or, preferably, receivers) would step up to take pressure off of AJ Green. While Green has dominated all year and has made a run at Calvin Johnson’s No. 1 spot, he’s gotten help from a cast of pass catchers as the season has gone along.
Most recently, Jermaine Gresham has stepped up to give Dalton a safety valve. The third-year tight end is second on the team in targets, catches and yards. He’s been as sure-handed as a quarterback could ask for in his last four games, registering a 79.2 percent catch rate while snagging two of his three scores.
Rookie Mohamed Sanu has also caught fire over the last three weeks. After only five catches for 56 yards in the first six games of his career, Sanu has gone off for four touchdowns during the Bengals’ hot streak. One of those on Sunday against Oakland was positively Green-like—a one-handed pull just steps from the white chalk in the end zone.
Defense Locking In
The Bengals 2011 defensive unit was quietly among the best in the league—they ranked No. 7 in yards allowed, No. 9 in points and No. 5 in sacks. The start of 2012 wasn’t pretty, though. Cincinnati got bombed for 44 points on opening night and didn’t hold an opponent under two touchdowns until its fifth game of the year. While they’re still middle-of-the-pack in terms of yardage allowed on the season, the Bengals have slammed the door shut on their last three opponents to the tune of 29 total points allowed and an average of only 273 total yards per game. They’ve been especially lethal against the pass, holding both Eli Manning and Carson Palmer well under 200 yards. A big part of that has been the pass rush. Since week 10, eight different Bengals have gotten to opposing quarterbacks. It’s been a remarkably balanced pass rush; defensive end Wallace Gilberry has two sacks in that span, and no other Bengal has more than 1.5.