The Cincinnati Bengals have to be considered one of the most improved teams in the NFL this year. The big question is, are they for real?
Cincinnati is 7-2 and should make the playoffs -- if not as the AFC North champion, then as a wild card. But have the Bengals matured and grown as a team since their 27-13 loss at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers three weeks ago? The answer to that question could go a long way toward determining how far the Bengals go.
Starting strong right out of the gate, the Bengals opened 4-0, including road victories over the Bears and Browns, for the best start they've had since Marvin Lewis took over as head coach two years ago. The team started 1-4 in each of Lewis' first two seasons.
The fast start instilled a lot of confidence in Cincinnati's young players, both on offense and defense. Their big three playmakers on offense -- quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver Chad Johnson -- are establishing themselves as top players in the league at their positions. The young defense, led by rookie linebacker Odell Thurman and ball-hawking corner Deltha O'Neal, is creating turnovers. At this point, Cincinnati is playing with a lot of confidence, but it remains to be seen whether the Bengals also are maturing as a club. Can they handle the success?