War of 18-12

Wow, where to begin.

The Bengals’ 18-12 win over the Steelers on Sunday put another stamp on what has been the biggest turnaround in the NFL this season.

After a 4-11-1 season a year ago, the Bengals are now standing tall at 7-2 — and astonishingly they are 5-0 in AFC North games, including sweeps of the Steelers and Ravens. It marks the first time in team history that Cincinnati has swept Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season (and marks the first time the Bengals have swept the Steelers since 1998).

What happened on Sunday was that the Bengals went into the home of the reigning Super Bowl champions and gave them a taste of their own medicine. The Bengals prevailed with defense, toughness and poise.

Oh yeah, and a breakout performance by rookie running back/kickoff returner Bernard Scott.

Scott scored the game’s only touchdown on a 96-yard kickoff return, and he showed good speed and the ability to make people miss on the play. And thank goodness the team finally took Andre Caldwell out of that role and inserted Scott. As I wrote about two weeks ago on this blog, Caldwell is a good wide receiver, but he’s a shaky kick returner. Scott should have the job for the remainder of the season now as long as he stays healthy.

And speaking of injuries, all Bengal fans were extremely nervous when “midseason MVP” Cedric Benson went down with a hip injury in the second quarter. He carried once after the injury, but could only go half-speed and did not return in the second half. (Many wondered how serious the injury was, but Benson said afterwards he thinks he will play next week at Oakland. Wheeew.)

However, Scott filled in admirably. His stats won’t jump off the page at anyone (13 carries for 33 yards, 1 reception for 21 yards) but he looked like he belonged and was able to churn out some tough yards. And that kickoff return for a touchdown was the biggest play in the game. The future appears very bright for this sixth-round steal who was the national Division II player of the year last season at Abilene Christian. (The Bengals really did well for themselves in the sixth round of the 2009 draft landing both cornerback Morgan Trent and Scott. In fact, the Bengals had a good ’09 draft, period. And we haven’t even seen offensive tackle Andre Smith yet.)

Scott is just one of many non-star players that have stepped up for Cincinnati.

How about the trade the Bengals pulled off in getting running back Brian Leonard from the Rams during the offseason? The Bengals traded defensive tackle Orien Harris straight-up for Leonard, who was a second-round draft pick in 2007.

The Rams eventually traded Harris to the Lions, who subsequently cut him. And the Bengals re-signed Harris. So, they basically got Leonard for absolutely nothing.

And all he’s done is turn into the Bengals’ version of Kevin Faulk. In other words, a third down back extraordinaire. Leonard is fourth on the team with 20 receptions (behind only Chad Ochocinco – who is having a great year – Laveranues Coles and Caldwell) for 153 yards (7.6 yards per reception). Leonard has made some key plays for the Bengals this year on third down (and a big fourth-down conversion in the first Steelers game on the Bengals’ game-winning drive) and credit goes out to the front office for finding him without giving up anything. Hey, you probably won’t hear me giving the front office kudos too much, but when they deserve it, you have to give them their props.

Another unheralded player that has stepped up this season is fifth-year defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene who is second on the team with five sacks.

How surprising is it that Fanene – a seventh-round draft pick in 2005 – has five sacks already this year? Well, he had exactly one his first four seasons in the NFL – that coming in 2007. One! With the season-ending injury to Antwan Odom – who still leads the team with eight tackles – Fanene’s role has increased and he’s playing well.

I also like what I’m seeing out of rookie third-round pick Michael Johnson at defensive end. He only has one sack so far, but he pressured Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger a few times in Sunday’s game and Johnson gives the Bengals a true athletic speed-rusher much in Odom’s mold. Odom had added 20 pounds of muscle this offseason – so he was certainly stronger than Johnson is – but Johnson is coming on strong and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out with a few sacks.

Credit also goes out to fourth-year linebacker Brandon Johnson who the Bengals signed as a free agent before the 2008 season. This might sound surprising to a lot of you, but I don’t think the Bengals lose anything when Johnson is in there for second-year pro Keith Rivers. In fact, and get ready for this one, I think Johnson is better than Rivers. At this stage of their careers, it’s not even close. Johnson plays with his pants on fire and Rivers is too tentative for my tastes. Rivers is injured right now and Johnson has stepped into the starting role at weak-side linebacker. The Louisville product brings excellent athletic ability to the position (he’s 6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and he plays with the kind of toughness and reckless abandon that I like to see out of linebackers.

I feel good about the starting linebackers of Johnson, Dhani Jones and Rey Maualuga right now. The latter is going to be a star before it’s all said and done. Maualuga will move to middle linebacker eventually, but this year he’s playing well from the SAM spot.

And the best part about the Bengals being 7-2? They get to play the Raiders, Browns and Lions the next three weeks. The old Bengals would have taken those teams lightly and wouldn’t have been focused. However, will the new Bengals go 3-0 in this stretch and move their overall record to, gasp, 10-2?! I think it’s going to happen, but nothing is a sure thing in the NFL and the Bengals need to keep the pedal down. This has been one of the most enjoyable seasons in team history and they can’t slip up when they play one of the few patsies on their schedule. The Browns gave the Bengals all they could handle in Cleveland earlier this year – a game the Bengals were very fortunate to win in overtime – so that goes to show that even the worst NFL teams can win on, cliché alert, any given Sunday.

But this is a different Bengals team – both physically and mentally – and I think they are going to get it done these next three weeks against lesser foes. But for now, the team is still soaking up its victory in the 18-12 war at Heinz Field on Sunday which gave the Bengals complete control in the brutal AFC North. The Steelers (or Ravens) would have to finish a game ahead of the Bengals to win the AFC North title since Cincinnati owns all the tiebreakers.

The Bengals are even in the hunt for a first-round playoff bye. Talk about things not usually discussed in Cincinnati – at least not since 1988. One of the byes will almost-assuredly go to Indianapolis which barely stayed undefeated with a thrilling comeback victory over New England Sunday night. The Colts are 9-0 and the Bengals have the second-best record in the AFC. Can the Bengals hold off teams like the 6-3 New England Patriots for the second playoff bye? We’ll see, and yes, I’m getting way ahead of myself. But these are the things that 7-2 teams talk about.

It’s time to get used to being a good team, Bengal fans, because that’s exactly what they are.