Bengals Win And They’re In

Who would have ever thought the Cincinnati Bengals would be in this position entering the final week of the 2011 regular season?

Entering the year, expectations were at an all-time low … and that’s saying quite a bit when you’re talking about the Bengals.

Even the most-optimistic of fans could see the writing on the wall: A team coming off a 4-12 season with a rookie quarterback, rookie offensive coordinator, questions on the offensive line and a defense that saw the team’s top offseason priority – cornerback Johnathan Joseph – leave via free agency.

Add it all up and it looked like a 6-10 record at best – and that was only because of the weak schedule.

However, here the Bengals stand 9-6 and one win away from a shocking playoff birth. That’s right, if Cincinnati is able to defeat visiting Baltimore this Sunday, the Bengals will have made the playoffs for the third time in the last seven years. I’ve largely been a Marvin Lewis critic, but hats off to him if he’s able to pull it off. This was a franchise that didn’t sniff the playoffs from 1991-2002. Then Lewis arrived in 2003 and immediately turned them into a contender.

Obviously, beating the 11-4 Ravens won’t be an easy task, but the Bengals have played extremely well against them during the Lewis era in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium. (Speaking of which, the team is on a full-scale marketing barrage this week hoping to get a sellout or at least close after some embarrassing home crowds this season. Season-ticket holders have been offered a “buy-one, get-one-free” deal for the Ravens game. I personally think the Bengals should bite the bullet and have discounted prices for the entire general public, but we’ll see how far they can get targeting the season ticket holders first.)

Anyway, I hope the Bengals’ players and coaches don’t worry too much about what the crowd will look like because the focus needs to be on preparing for the game. The Ravens already have a playoff spot locked up, but they have a lot to play for as a win would give them the AFC North championship and a first-round bye. A loss to the Bengals and a Steelers win would mean the Ravens would enter the postseason as a wildcard.

So, Cincinnati is definitely going to get the best the Ravens have to offer and it’s going to be a difficult game. That said, the Bengals are certainly playing with house money at this point and they deserve a lot of credit for just being in this spot. But now that they’re so close, might as well finish the deal and truly make their stamp as the surprise team of the entire NFL this season.

And my goodness does the future look bright with the host of young talent on the team like rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, rookie wide receiver A.J. Green and second-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Also, one of the unsung heroes of this year’s squad has been fifth-year safety Reggie Nelson who has been solid in run support and leads the team with four interceptions. The Bengals absolutely fleeced the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Nelson trade just prior to the 2010 season when Cincinnati only gave up cornerback David Jones. (Who? Exactly.)

Nelson, the Jags’ first-round pick out of Florida in 2007, will be a free agent after this season and hopefully the Bengals will be able to lock him up with a long-term deal.