Could anyone who watched "Hard Knocks" imagine this? Watching Chad Ochocinco's(notes) antics, and the front office bumbling their way through the Andre Smith(notes) contract talks, and a team that seemed to have 8-8 prospects at best, how could you possibly imagine that the Cincinnati Bengals would finish up the first half of their season at 6-2, and sole possession of first place in the AFC North?
Well, here we are, folks. The Bengals, possessors of one winning season in the last 19 years, swept the season series with the Baltimore Ravens with a 17-7 win that wasn't as close as the score indicated. It was interesting in that Cincinnati took a few pages from Baltimore's offensive game plan with some unbalanced lines and smashmouth football courtesy of Cedric Benson(notes), who picked up 117 rushing yards on 34 carries. Carson Palmer(notes) was efficient, completing 20 passes on 33 attempts, but it was clear that the Bengals wanted to tattoo their will on the Ravens, and they were able to do just that. Baltimore's defense went with a lot of man coverage and inside blitzes that the unheralded Bengals line picked up with aplomb. And without nose tackle Haloti Ngata(notes), the Ravens found it tough to stop the inside run.
As for the Ravens running their own game plan? Didn't happen. Ray Rice(notes) was limited to 48 yards on 12 carries, and Joe Flacco(notes) threw two interceptions. Baltimore was 1-for-10 in converting third downs, and the Bengals held a 40:00-20:00 advantage in time of possession. After going 39 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the Ravens can't seem to stop the bleeding -- their defense is clearly not what it used to be. They've lost four of their last five games, and they're on the outside looking in when it comes to postseason hopes.
As for the Bengals, they have the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field next Sunday. If they take the Steelers, who they've already defeated once this year, they'll have divisional pole position all the way, Then, the only challenge they'll face is the trap of wrapping up the regular season too early.
Who woulda thunk it?