Why the Cincinnati Bengals are going to win AFC North

After a memorable come-from-behind victory against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals can check resilience off the list of traits for the 2013 season – but is that enough?

In a game with more fodder than a peewee kids football game on Saturdays, the Bengals did the impossible and gave up a 14 point lead, went down by 16, then won the game 34-30. It’s the only time in NFL history that a team has been that far ahead, then fell that far behind before coming back to win.

And the fact that it came against one of the hottest teams in the NFL is definitely a factor. The one aspect of the Bengals that has been constant for the most part of this early season is the defense.

Andy Dalton was 20 of 28, with 235 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 30-34 win over the Packers

Andy Dalton was 20 of 28, with 235 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 34-30 win over the Packers

And it’s the defense that is going to win the division for the Bengals and take them to the playoffs for the second year in a row. Some might think that the Baltimore Ravens as the reigning NFL champions might have something to say about that coming off a dominating performance over the Texans on Sunday, but let’s not forget the Ravens’ defense was torn apart by Peyton Manning in the season opener and the team barely came away with a 14-6 win against the always-rebuilding Cleveland Browns. Baltimore is no longer Baltimore.

The Ravens’ defense ranks 21st in passing yards with 270 a game, and the offense ranks a meager 20th in passing with 231 yards a game. And the running game – Baltimore has a running game? The Ravens rank 25th in rushing with 77 yards a game. The real shining spot at this point in the season is the running defense that ranks fourth with 74 yards a game.

If anything happens to Joe Flacco, the Ravens will be dueling it out with the Browns and Steelers for AFC North cellar space.

Right now, the Bengals’ offense ranks 11th in passing yards with 257 a game. After a decline in play against the Steelers, Andy Dalton seemed to regress back to his old ways, but he was able to rally the offense on Sunday in one of the most memorable wins in recent Bengal history.

Most of Dalton’s offense was short routes and check downs that serve his abilities well. But he did connect with A.J. Green on a 20-yard touchdown (Marvin Jones had one was well but it was only an 11-yarder). He ended the day 20 of 28 for 235 yards, two touchdowns and an interception – plus a lost fumble, but everyone was fumbling.

The most relevant sign from Sunday’s win was Dalton coming back in the second half after the Packers made a 0-for-30 run against the Bengals.

Dalton was 0-for-2 with an interception and a pass defended while targeting Green in the first half Sunday. In the second half, none of Dalton’s attempts to Green were broken up by a Packers defender, going 4-for-6 for 46 yards and a touchdown. Part of that was due to the Packers players dropping like flies in the second half, namely Clay Matthews who left third quarter with a hamstring injury. Still, Dalton showed poise when the Bengals were on the verge of a historical in-game collapse.

The biggest contributor to Sunday’s win and the aspect of the Bengals that is going to get them to the playoffs is the defense. While the defense ranks 14th in passing and rushing yards (231 and 102 yards respectively) they are slowly becoming the feared opposition to NFL offenses that made OC’s queasy last year.

Take away the week 1 loss to the Bears, in which the defense did well until it mattered, and this year’s Bengals’ defense may top last year’s in the rankings. With every game the unit is getting better. Barring the scoreboard from Sunday’s game, the defense was making Aaron Rodgers’ life hard in the pocket, causing two interceptions and sacking the Pro Bowl quarterback four times.

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Michael Johnson (93) not only has 1.5 sacks but two tipped passes in 2013.

Michael Johnson (93) not only has 1.5 sacks, but two tipped passes in 2013.

With the exception of Green Bay whose offense was fairly depleted, the Bengals’ defense hasn’t taken on a powerhouse offense, especially one that excels at both running and passing. But I doubt that would matter much, because the Bengals’ defense has dealt with a large number of injuries to the secondary to the point they had to re-sign Chris Crocker (again). Somehow the defense is still getting better despite a revolving door of personnel, and the some of the key players are yet to be a factor.

Geno Atkins, the NFL’s best interior defensive lineman in 2012, has exactly one tackle so far this season and that was a Ben Roethlisberger sack. The Bengals are still generating pressure on quarterbacks from other core players like Michael Johnson who broke out on Sunday with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble (not to mention a couple deflected passes), as well as Carlos Dunlap who has two sacks on the year. Domato Peko is helping the interior with 1.5 sacks of his own while providing solid run support in the middle.

The porous secondary is still pulling its weight with Terence Newman and Leon Hall each with an interception while both are keeping the ball out of the receiver’s hands. On Sunday the Bengals held the Packers’ wide receivers to 47 yards after the catch. The Packers’ receivers gained 178 yards after the catch against the Redskins the week prior.

With second-year Dre Kirkpatrick battling injuries (again) and nagging injuries to Adam Jones, and more recently Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall, the secondary has been performing well in between trips to the infirmary.

No matter what the stats and scores from the past three weeks are, the most important aspect of this defense – and the team as a whole – is a mature, never surrender attitude that was on display last Sunday. If this mentality persists throughout the season, Cincinnati may just be treated to the first second-round playoff game in professional sports since ’95.