Friday, August 29, 2008

Super Sleeper: the Cincinnati Bengals

It's hard to find a real playoff sleeper these days: there are so many football outlets, and everybody is looking to predict this year's surprise team.

But nobody likes the Cincinnati Bengals.

Sports Illustrated thinks they'll finish 5-11. Not one of ESPN's analysts think the Bengals will even finish 2nd in the AFC North: they all predict 3rd or 4th place finishes. Pete Prisco thinks they'll finish 3rd in the AFC North. Don Banks thinks they'll be 6-10. Bill Simmons thinks they'll be 6-10. Not one of USA Today's prognosticators picks the Bengals to win their division--just one picks them to make the playoffs. No Sports Illustrated writer picks them to make the playoffs. One of eleven Fanhouse writers picks the Bengals. This all intrigues me: I'm not saying these writers are wrong to expect little from Cincinnati, but real sleeper emerges when almost nobody expects them to do anything.

There are a lot of problems in Cincinnati, on and off the field. But I think Carson Palmer is an elite quarterback, and he's surrounded by a lot of offensive talent. And I think there are significant flaws to the Ravens, the Browns, and even the Steelers: the AFC North is there for the taking.

I've already predicted a 10-6 record and a division title for the Bengals. I can see why nobody else likes them: questions about players like Chad Johnson and Chris Henry, questions about a defense that's been bad for years, questions about the poorly run organization, questions about the coach. But if you're looking for a sleeper playoff team, who else is there? I have a feeling that during games, any of those "character" questions will not matter: Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzedah will line up and catch passes from a very good quarterback. I'll take Carson Palmer flinging the ball all over the field leading the Bengals to a surprise playoff berth.

Is Cincinnati really so inferior to a team like Cleveland? Look at the team numbers Prisco provides. The '07 Bengals scored 380 points and gave up 385; the '07 Browns scored 402 points and gave up 382. The Bengals had 348 yards per game and gave up 348.8 yards per game; the Browns had 351.3 yards per game, and gave up 359.6 yards per game. When you look at those numbers, the teams are barely different at all. A little fluctuation in points differential and the Bengals are the 10-6 team and the Browns 7-9. Isn't Carson Palmer throwing to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzedah at least as intriguing as Derek Anderson throwing to Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr? And what are the other big differences between these teams?

The Ravens will struggle offensively all season. The Steelers may have problems with pass protection (Ben Roethlisberger lost more yards on sacks than any QB in the league last year, and that was with Alan Faneca), may have trouble in the running game, and face a tough schedule. The Browns are pretty a pretty similar team to the Bengals, comparable in many areas. It's not so odd to imagine the Bengals getting to 10 wins and winning the AFC North.


  1. I predicted a division win too for them. Of course, they need to stay healthy like every team, but TJ and Chad are just too good when Rudi plays well.

  2. Anonymous3:53 PM

    "But I think Carson Palmer is an elite quarterback, and he's surrounded by a lot of offensive talent."

    How does that portend a better season than the last two? If anything, the team seems to be losing talent.


  3. Palmer is 32-29 as a starter: despite pretty ragged defenses (their rank in points allowed/yards allowed in Palmer's four years as starter: 21/19, 22/28, 17/30, 24/27), Palmer and the offense have kept the Bengals pretty competitive. And looking over the teams that missed the playoffs in '07, the best QBs are Palmer, Brees, and McNabb; the Saints and especially the Eagles are highly regarded, so the Bengals seem to me the only real "sleeper" team with an elite QB. A slight defensive improvement and a little luck, and the Bengals could be much better than people expect.

    The defense is still questionable, but I have trouble seeing a team with Carson Palmer and talented skill position players finishing worse than 7-9, and I expect better.

  4. Anonymous5:12 PM

    32-29 gets a big boost from one 11-5. i'm willing to assign blame to big game shortcomings to chad johnson... er, chad ocho cinco. worse and getting worser, unless some of these high pick runners start paying off.


  5. Well, yes: Palmer's record as starter in each of his seasons was 6-7, 11-5, 8-8, and 7-9. Never awful, usually pretty competitive despite some weak defenses. So if the defense plays better and gets some luck...

    A sleeper pick is never going to have a rock solid argument.

  6. Anonymous4:00 PM

    Carson Palmer single handedly cost me the Championship last season. He's fools gold, as are the rest of the Bungles.

    Do yourself a favor and stay away from that team completely.

  7. Except for the part where the Bengals have no defense.

    I mean they have NONE at all. NO consistency on the defensive end, question marks at receiver to the point of bringing Chris Henry back.

    Steelers have this again.

  8. Anonymous6:18 AM

    We are probably the only two idiots on this rusted bucket, but I think the Bengals are a sleeper too. Not to win the Super Bowl or anything, but to contend for the AFC North or a wildcard spot if the defense improves a little.

    Here is a post I wrote back in the Spring:

    The Bengals started horribly last year, and for a stretch in the early season, didn't even have enough healthy linebackers to field a starting lineup, signing players off the street and moving Geathers from DE to LB in the middle of the season. During that time, they limped to a 2-6 start. Now, I know their recent defenses will not be confused for the 1985 Bears anytime soon, but the odds are pretty good that they will not be reduced to signing linebackers off the street and moving defensive ends to linebacker mid season.

    They finished 5-3, including a convincing win over Tennessee and a win that knocked the Browns out of the playoffs. So, when they were a little healthier and have just a below average defense, they won more games than they lost. Their point differential indicated a 7.9 win team, so they underperformed in close games.

    Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if they went either way, but pretty much every one has written them off. Vegas has it at 7.5 wins right now, and 80% of people would say Under. Vegas isn't in the habit of putting bad lines out there.

  9. Anonymous8:28 AM

    Rudi's gone. They'd better hope that running game experiences addition by subtraction, or they're going nowhere this year.