Okay, so that’s not exactly how you draw it up, but first place is first place. That’s where the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves after the rest of the AFC North lost in Week Four, putting the Bengals in a three-way tie with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Oh, and with the Bengals facing down the Ravens in Week Five, there’s a golden opportunity to take an early, but significant, lead.
After starting the season with surprising losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys, the Bengals look like they’ve finally found a winning formula. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant issues that still need to be addressed - the pass protection still hasn’t been great and the run game has been invisible - but for the most part, since their game versus the New York Jets, this has looked like the Bengals team we remembered from last year.
Of course, the Bengals owe some gratitude to their AFC North rivals, each of which has obliged Bengals fans with embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss. The schedule may be longer than ever now with seventeen games, but after the Bengals lost in Week One and the rest of the division started 1 - 0, things weren’t looking good. After looking like a dumpster-fire against the immortal Cooper Rush and the Cowboys, people all over Cincinnati and beyond were ready to hit the panic button. Two weeks later, it’s like a brand-new season.
So, while the Bengals look like they’re finally rounding into form, the rest of the division has been…perplexing, to say the least. The Ravens were preseason darlings, and their bandwagon only grew after they smoked the Jets in Week One. They would follow up that performance by blowing a 21-point lead at halftime to the Miami Dolphins. The following week, the Ravens rebounded and pushed around the New England Patriots for win #2. As for Week Four…it was back the blowing-leads-business.
In another stunning collapse, the Ravens, who led 20 - 3 at one point in the first half, saw the Buffalo Bills storm back for the unlikely victory. The loss was bad enough but making matters worse was the ugly energy that seemed to be emanating from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. With just over four minutes to play remaining in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh elected to go for it on fourth down on the two-yard line. In his mind, as he explained after the game, he wanted the security of a seven-point lead over a tenuous three-point lead, and even if they failed to convert, the Bills offense would take the field backed up in their own endzone, an unenviable position for even the most explosive units in the NFL.
That logic might be all well and good, but Harbaugh forgot one crucial detail: the potential for an interception. And that’s just what happened. After receiving the snap, QB Lamar Jackson, who has played at an MVP-level all season, continued to drop back deeper and deeper until uncorking a pass toward the corner of the endzone that was promptly intercepted by Bills safety Jordan Poyer. Instead of taking over at the two-yard line, which would have happened had the Ravens taken a regular-old turnover on downs, the Bills got the ball at the 20-yard line because of the touchback.
It was an abject disaster. To no one’s surprise, the Bills offense marched down the field and right into field goal range. At one point, it looked like the Ravens defense was going to allow running back Devin Singletary to just breeze into the endzone so that the offense would at least have the opportunity to tie the game, but linebacker Odafe Oweh must not have gotten the memo, as he tackled the Bills RB just a couple yards shy of the endzone. The Bills run out the rest of the clock and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
So, that’s two 17-point leads blown by the Ravens in the first four games of the season, for anyone who's counting. But before you get too excited, the Browns and Steelers haven’t been much to write home about, either.
Even though their starting QB is umm…indisposed for the time being, the Browns undoubtedly have one of the strongest rosters in the NFL, top to bottom. They have an excellent offensive line led by two All Pro guards, two stud running backs, a #1 receiver, a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year candidate, and playmakers at every level. And yet, this is the Browns we’re talking about. No team is guaranteed to lose more games they should win.
After starting the season on a strong note by defeating cast-off QB Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers on the road, the Browns returned home the following week and allowed the Jets to score two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the game to lose 31 - 30. They bounced back with a nice victory over the Steelers but followed up by getting beaten by a shaky Atlanta Falcons team that seems terrified to throw the ball more than fifteen times a game. It feels like this Browns season is destined to be a roller coaster, and I have a feeling that ride won’t stop even when Deshaun Watson returns from his suspension.
As for the Steelers, the Mitchell-Trubisky experiment finally imploded in Week Four versus the Jets. Now, we can’t say it was a complete failure - Trubisky did manage to beat the Bengals, after all - but let’s be honest here: Pittsburgh fans were about to mutiny if they saw him toss one more pathetic checkdown that goes nowhere. So, at the start of the second half, the Steelers turned to first-round rookie QB Kenny Pickett. He wasn’t great, and he did throw three interceptions, but Pickett provided a spark and a willingness to make something happen. Making something happen is decidedly not in Trubisky’s skill set.
At the end, though, the Steelers would lose to the Jets, extending their losing streak to three games after a 1 - 0 start. It looks like Pickett will have the reins from here on out, but the Steelers problems go way beyond just the QB. The defense has struggled mightily to pressure opposing QBs since losing T.J. Watt in Week One, and the receivers aren’t getting open consistently, and the offensive line is a mess. Any QB would struggle in these circumstances.
All of this is to say, the Bengals are back in business. No sane person would have drawn it up this way. The Bengals themselves are probably spitting mad they let the first two games slip away. But, in the end, they’re right where they want to be - at the top of the division.