Young Bengals learning to handle success

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?