You can’t watch the Cincinnati Bengals without looking over your shoulder. They are Murphy’s Law in Halloween colors -- a franchise forever looking up at the bottom of the other shoe.
Which is why it’s easy to forget how good they are.
This is a Bengals team that has made the playoffs five years in a row -- something only the Patriots, Packers and Broncos can also claim. It is a team that didn’t lose last season until Week 10 -- that had a shot at the AFC’s top playoff seed until Week 16. In this decade, between the months of September and December, the Bengals have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL.
So let’s give credit where it’s due. Sunday’s victory over the Jets in New Jersey was a big-time win by an AFC power. The list of things the Bengals overcame to start this season 1-0 is amazing.
First of all, with the possible exception of the Minnesota Vikings, no team in the NFL ended its 2015 season in more devastating fashion than the Bengals ended theirs. With a playoff victory over their hated rivals in their hands, they fumbled the ball away when all they had to do was run the clock out, then put the Steelers in field goal range with two personal-foul penalties in the final seconds. No loss in recent memory, by any team, was harder to stomach or explain.
So they were coming off of that, for starters. They also were playing without star linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose authorship of one of those penalties earned him a three-game suspension to start the season, and star tight end Tyler Eifert, who’s injured. They lost two significant wide receivers -- Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu -- as well as starting free safety Reggie Nelson in free agency. Their offensive coordinator left to coach the Browns.
Then the game itself started, and the Jets punched them right in the face. Five sacks in the first half by a swarming New York defensive front. The Jets took a 7-0 lead, intercepted a pass in Cincinnati territory and moved the ball to the point of first-and-goal on the 4. It was fixin' to get ugly in a hurry.
But the Bengals’ own defense held -- and blocked the field goal -- and one of the grittiest games of the day was on. Five lead changes, including a go-ahead Jets field goal with 3 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game. Seven sacks total of quarterback Andy Dalton. This was a game the Bengals could have lost any number of ways, for any number of reasons, and it would have felt very Bengals if they had.
Thing is, though, that’s not who the Bengals are. I mean, it’s who they are one day every January, sure. But for the vast majority of the time, since the year they drafted wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round and Dalton in the second, what the Bengals have been is one of the best teams in the AFC. They have built a team the way you’re supposed to build it – through the draft. They are able to replenish from within when they lose free agents, not having to use high picks on short-term needs but rather with an eye toward the future and keeping themselves competitive over the long haul.
It’s working. You can’t win playoff games if you don’t get to the playoffs, and the Bengals get to the playoffs every year. This is a team judged on a handful of its worst days, in a league in which playoff success has become the only thing that matters. That perception obscures who the Bengals really are. But on the road Sunday against a tough fellow contender in a game, that didn’t seem to be going their way for long stretches, they showed who they really are.
The Bengals could let you down in January again. And if they do, that will be the story of their season. They know it, and they don’t think it’s unfair. But what you don’t have to wonder, if you’re a fan of this team, is whether it’s capable of getting to those January games. At this point you kind of expect the Bengals to be in the playoffs. And how many teams would trade places with them on that?