Halfway through the season, John Fay explores whether the Cincinnati Bengals are a playoff team

Posted at 10:13 AM, Nov 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-02 10:13:03-04

CINCINNATI -- The Bengals have answered a lot of questions about themselves in the first half of the season. It’s a pretty even split between positive and negative answers. You’d expect that from a 3-4-1 team.

What they haven’t answered is the biggest question of them all: Are they a playoff team for the sixth straight year?

That will play out over the last half the season, which begins Nov. 14 against the Giants in New Jersey.

This week is the bye week. It comes at a good time. Sunday’s game in London was taxing physically with the long trip and the long game.

“My body hurts. My body’s tired,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “We’ll get some much-needed rest. London kind of hurt us a little. Travel, flight, tired and all that. If we had a game this week, it would be a struggle for us.”

The game also took a toll on the Bengals mentally because of the 27-27 tie in a very winnable game against Washington.

“When you go so far away and you have an opportunity to win the game but don’t, it’s frustrating,” running back Giovani Bernard said. “But it is what it is. But we have time to correct it. That’s always a good thing.”

The players feel they are better than the 3-4-1 record.

“Way better,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and fix some things. We all know that.”

Knowing and doing are different things, though.

“We’ve done a lot of talking the last couple of weeks without a lot of results,” running back Jeremy Hill said. “It’s time to get the results. We didn’t do that Sunday. We get another opportunity in a couple of weeks. We’ve got to deliver.”

The Bengals can take some solace in the fact that the AFC North is still winnable. The Bengals are one-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers -- and the Bengals have a home game versus Pittsburgh on Dec. 18.

“We still have everything in front of us we want to accomplish,” Hill said. “We’ve got to go out and do it.”

Here’s nine things we’ve learned about the Bengals in those first eight games:

1. It's tackle football

The Bengals have been an awful tackling team this year. That was particularly evident Sunday in the tie.

Coach Marvin Lewis said the Bengals got what they expected from Kirk Cousins on Sunday -- high percentage passes.

“You’ve got to do a good job of tackling the catch,” Lewis said. “The guy is going to complete a high percentage. He’s going to get rid of the ball. He’s going to throw it away or check it down. Tackle the catch.

“I’ve come in here too many times and talked about tackling. Tackling is an 11-man proposition. We’ve got to do a better job.”

2. A.J. Green is good

Make that really, really good. Green leads the NFL in catches and receiving yards. He’s on pace to break team records in both categories. And he’s made some of the NFL’s best cornerbacks look mediocre.

New England coach Bill Belichick puts Green at the top of the receiver list because of his ability to catch the short ball, the immediate pass and the deep route.

“I’d say the thing that really, to me, puts him at the top of the league in receivers is his ability to affect all three levels, particularly those intermediate routes,” Belichick said.

3. Ogbuehi has work to do

Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi has struggled at right tackle to the degree that veteran Eric Winston is getting some of the snaps. Ogbuehi is rated at 44.8 by Pro Football Focus. That’s 63rd among tackles.

Ogbuehi’s strength is his athletic ability, but he’s struggled against the bullrush.

4. Eifert effect

Getting Tyler Eifert back is huge going forward. Eifert’s 15-yard, running, leaping touchdown catch Sunday was something none of the other Bengal tight ends have done in his absence.

“It’s good to have Tyler back,” Lewis said. “I thought more importantly was Tyler’s blocking on the line of scrimmage. It was excellent. That was big.”

5. Jones, Burfict slipping

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones were two of the Bengals’ best defenders last year, in addition to being the emotional leaders.

Both are well off last year’s performances, according to Pro Football Focus.

Burfict graded out at 85.1 last year. This year, he’s at 47.7. Jones graded out at 83.4 last year. This year, he’s at 48.9. That’s from high quality to poor in both cases.

They have to play better for the Bengals to get the defense up to last year’s standards.

6. Do run run

The running game has come around the last three weeks. The Bengals have rushed for 120, 271 and 152 in those three games. They failed to go over 100 yards in the first five games.

“We’ve done a good job,” Lewis said. “The backs have done a good job. We’ve missed a few runs (Sunday). We’ve got to continue to work at it. Grind at it.”

7. Yips for Nugent?

Mike Nugent missed a field goal and extra point in the tie Sunday. He missed two field goals the week before. Nugent was 13-for-13 from inside the 50 prior to his struggles.

8. They've got their health

The Bengals go into the second half very healthy, now that Eifert’s back. He’s the only starter who’s missed significant time. Top draft pick William Jackson and veteran running back Cedric Peerman could return from injured reserve at some point, but not likely for the Giants.

“We’re fortunate,” Lewis said, “with where we are with what the guys have done in the offseason and training. Knock on wood, we’ll continue this way.”

9. Easier sledding

All four of the Bengals losses were to teams leading their division. The overall record of the eight opponents was 35-27 in the first half. The composite record on the second-half opponents is 27-35.

The Bengals are capable of making a run. The question is: Will they?

“Being great the last part of the season is what’s important,” Lewis said. “We didn’t finish very well last season. We have a chance to flip that. That’s what’s most important.”