CINCINNATI -- Who's your pick to win the AFC North?
You could make an argument for the Pittsburgh Steelers, based on last year, on Ben Roethlisberger and, well, they're the Steelers. You could make an argument for the Baltimore Ravens, based on the fact that they're in first place and playing the best. You could make an argument for the Browns … Whoops, scratch that.
But if I had to bet right now, I'd take the Bengals.
So that's the argument I'll make.
It won't be easy. They're 3-4-1 at the halfway point and haven't put together two good games in a row. Now, they have to string together six or seven starting Monday night in New Jersey against the Giants.
"It's definitely a challenge ahead," running back Jeremy Hill said. "We've got to take it week by week, but understand that each week is almost like a playoff game at this point with it being so close. Every loss hurts really bad. We know, going forward, losing football games isn't an option."
The Bengals also know they're fortunate to be in the spot they're in. The Steelers could have opened a three-game lead.
With a win Monday night, the Bengals would be 4-4-1 and would jump over the Steelers (4-5) into second place – a half-game behind the first-place Ravens (5-4).
"It is evident that we've just got to take care of ourselves. That's my message to them all the time," coach Marvin Lewis said. "It was no different a year ago, and the year before that and year before that. Just handle our own business, and we'll be fine."
My argument for the Bengals is based on three things:
--The offense has been pretty good, except on third down. But they have their best third-down receiver, Tyler Eifert, back full strength now.
--The running game has been very good. As the weather gets colder, that's important in the AFC North.
--The defense is much better than its numbers. For the numbers to improve, two of the best players, Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, are going to have to be playing like it.
The linebacker and the cornerback play, however, has not been good across the board. According to Pro Football Focus, none of the Bengals starters even rates average. Burfict and Jones were rated High Quality by PFF, the second highest spot of the scale. The Bengals have to hope they get back there.
In the case of some of the others, maybe it's time to look at Vincent Rey getting more snaps at linebacker. Maybe it's time to try Darqueze Dennard at corner. There will likely be some changes coming out of the bye week. The coaches spent a lot of time evaluating.
The club did add defensive end Wallace Gilberry. He could get some of Michael Johnson's snaps. Johnson is the lowest-rated defensive starter on the club by PFF.
The Bengals remain confident. They were a 12-4 team last year. And who knows how things might have ended up if Andy Dalton hadn't broken his thumb in Week 13?
"We have the guys and the character to turn it around," safety George Iloka said. "So far, we've taken a different fork in the road. Last year, we started 8-0. This year, we took the harder route. We started off slow. Like I said, I know we have the guys in this locker room to turn it around."
"I'm excited for where are," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We're only one game back in our division. Everything is right ahead of us. All we got to do is start winning. It starts Monday night up in New York."
So I'm taking the Bengals.
I could make just as sound an argument for the Steelers or Ravens. But the schedule favors the Bengals. It is considerably easier the second half, and they have the Steelers and the Ravens at home in the last three weeks of the season. That's likely when the division will be decided.
But, as Hill said, every game is like a playoff game. A loss to the Giants would be devastating. The Bengals know that.
"I feel like with the position we're in, it's going to be decided in this last half," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "That's why there's such a huge importance on (a fast start in the second half of the season), because everybody is in it."