Opinion: These are not the same ole Cincinnati Bengals, who are relevant in December

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It’s December. The Cincinnati Bengals are relevant. Sure, that sounds weird when considering that in recent years this is the time when the Bengals are scratched off the NFL’s playoff grid.

But look at them now. If the playoffs were today, Joe Burrow’s team (7-4) would be the top wild-card entrant in the ultra-competitive AFC.

Who Dey?

“I knew they’d be better this season, but I thought it might take a little bit longer,” Dave Lapham, the former Bengals lineman, told USA TODAY Sports. Lapham has intimately witnessed the twists, turns and frustrations of the franchise for many years as the team’s radio analyst.

“They may be starting to play their best football at the right time.”

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Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon helped the Bengals rout the Steelers, 41-10, last week.
Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon helped the Bengals rout the Steelers, 41-10, last week.

Since a bye in Week 10, the Bengals outscored the Raiders and Steelers by a combined margin of 73-23 in scoring back-to-back blowouts. In clobbering the Steelers last weekend, they swept the season series and proved that the Week 3 win in Pittsburgh was no fluke. What a statement.

Then again, maybe the bigger statement came at Baltimore in Week 7 when they routed the Ravens.

No, the Bengals are no longer fit to be bullied by the AFC North heavyweights who have dominated their division for so long.

Still, to cement themselves as legitimate contenders, the Bengals need a few more “statement” wins down the stretch ... which is what December football is all about.

We’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell,” Reggie Williams, the former Bengals linebacker, told USA TODAY Sports. Williams, who lives in Florida, was back in Cincinnati earlier this season for a celebration honoring the franchise’s greatest players and doesn’t miss any opportunities to watch his former team.

“This is the longest season in NFL history. I’m a believer in them. But the whole thing is inconsistency. They’re either on or they’re off.”

Williams knows. The same Bengals who are riding hot with Joe Mixon (he rushed for more than 100 yards in the second half at Las Vegas, then had 100-plus in the first half against Pittsburgh) and a vastly improved defense followed up that big win at Baltimore by losing to the lowly Jets. Then they were spanked on their own turf by the Browns.

That’s a sign of the times in the NFL. It’s a week-to-week league.

Next up: L.A. When the Bengals host the Chargers (6-6), desperate to live up to their preseason hype as a team on the rise, it will provide another type of measuring stick. No, the Chargers are not the Chiefs, Bucs or Packers, but that was the team that handed Burrow a loss in his first NFL start last season. And there’s a nice subplot with the quarterbacks, with Burrow, drafted No. 1 overall in 2020, looking to outgun Justin Herbert (sixth overall), the league’s reigning offensive rookie of the year.

Another week, another “prove it” game.

Lapham said the excitement about the team is building around town.

“It’s still ‘show me,’“ he added. “I think they realize that.”

A few weeks ago, young Bengals coach Zac Taylor seemed destined for the hot seat after posting 2-14 and 4-11-1 records in his first two seasons. Now Taylor has a good shot at seizing the franchise’s first playoff berth since it won the AFC North crown in 2015 under predecessor Marvin Lewis.

There’s much to like about how the Bengals have turned it around. Obviously, Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, has shown up as advertised. He’s the AFC’s top-rated passer (101.6, ninth in the NFL). Yet they have scored hits with other draft picks and free agents, including linebacker Trey Hendrickson, a former Saint with 10 ½ sacks. And rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase (fifth overall) has sizzled in reuniting with Burrow, his former LSU teammate. Chase has scored 8 TDs and of the top 50 receiving yards leaders in the league, has the best average reception (18.1 yards).

Also, the defense that gave up more rushing yards over the previous three combined seasons, has been almost completely rebuilt into what Williams calls a “high-energy” unit with its special safeties, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell.

Lapham, meanwhile, raves about the job that offensive line coach Frank Pollard (who wasn’t retained from Lewis’ staff, but came back this season after two years with the Jets) has done developing the fundamentals and chemistry for a unit blowing open holes for the hard-charging Mixon while keeping Burrow protected.

The Bengals have a lot of pieces seemingly in place. But with a rematch against the Ravens that might determine the AFC North title looming for Week 16, followed by a visit from the Chiefs, there’s a long way to the finish line.

It’s fair to ask: Can you believe in the Bengals? We’ll see.

One thing for certain: These are not the same ole Bengals.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cincinnati Bengals enter December in thick of AFC playoff race