The Bengals weren't great yesterday. Thankfully, they didn't need to be. In a game that was often as ugly as the day's weather and brutal for its physical cost to both teams, their win over the Buffalo Bills was more about function than flair.
With it, a season that two weeks ago was teetering on the brink might be worth not giving up on yet.
There was a lot to like about the way the Bengals played against Buffalo. AJ Green might've played the best bad game ever, starting his day by patiently waiting for an Andy Dalton pass to fall into his arms for the game's first score, then finishing it by setting up his team's go-ahead score. In between, he looked like a guy who'd just been introduced to the sport before kickoff, contributing to three turnovers.
But at least - and for this team, this is important - Andy Dalton kept throwing the ball to him.
And he kept handing it to Joe Mixon.
The Bengals will probably never have an exceptionally productive running game - their offensive line is too much of a mess for that to happen - but they're at least achieving clarity at a position that was muddled five games ago, when the rotation of running backs made you look toward the sidelines for a team mom handing out orange slices. Mixon is clearly this team's go-to back, a positive, if predictable development that's come just in time. His numbers against Buffalo weren't spectacular, but his five-yard run for a score and later his eight-yard lug to seal the game were arguably the game's most important plays.
The defense did its part, and them some. The upgraded pass rush was on display, yet again, let by the often-maligned, and now, properly-used Michael Johnson, who was a beast against the Bills. Geno Atkins continues to be unblockable at times. Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis continue to pay dividends, and only Sunday's rain covered more of the field at PBS than Vontaze Burfict.
The result of all of these things was a hard-fought, well-earned victory that didn't come without a cost (the injuries to the secondary are a concern, and Tyler Boyd's knee injury looked scary, and thins the ranks of available pass-catchers) - and didn't come without frustrations (AJ's turnovers, a couple of exceptionally stupid penalties, and Brandon Tate exacting revenge on his former team), but at least kept the Bengals in the conversation to be a playoff team in a season where getting to the postseason might be more about simply sucking less than everyone else.
Five weeks in, a look at the NFL as a whole reveals a whole lot of meh, nah, and yuck. There have been many seasons defined by a lack of truly great teams - the Brady-less 2008 immediately comes to mind - but I'm not sure we have one with so few good teams.
The Chiefs are good. Fun to watch too. They also had about half their team get hurt against the Texans last night, and you're lying if you tell me you trust Alex Smith and Andy Reid together.
The Patriots can be scary, and there was something impressive about how they had to gut out Thursday's win over the Bucs (who would've won, if not for their kicker), but their defense is likely to be a problem all season, and there have been times this season when Tom Brady - and by extension, the entire offense - looks old and stiff.
Speaking of old and Stiff, Ben Roethlisberger threw five picks yesterday for a Pittsburgh team that was blown out at home by an okay Jacksonville squad and continues to sputter on offense. The Steelers are still a good bet to win the AFC North, mainly because someone has to be the favorite in the division, and they do have both a head-to-head victory over the Ravens and a history against the Bengals that can't be ignored, but they also have a very tough schedule ahead, and legit questions about how full Roethlisberger's tank is looming over it.
The rest of the conference is a lot of Ravens, Texans, Jaguars, Broncos, and Raiders. All deeply flawed. Some dealing with critical injuries. Each capable of raising eyebrows in a given week. None looking capable of separating themselves from the pack.
In that pack sits the Bengals. Still just 2-3, still lacking any kind of "holy shit" victory (sorry, Bills fans), but clearly still alive, and even in a season in which they've played some of the franchise's worst offensive football ever, still with a chance to make something of it.
Since their 0-2 start, they've trended upward, out-playing Green Bay for most of the afternoon at Lambeau, dominating a dreadful Cleveland team (remember when you laughed at me when I said that I wasn't convinced that Hue Jackson would be given time to around the Browns?), and doing just enough to win over a Buffalo team that sits comfortably in the league's large middle of indistinguishable teams.
Which is where the Bengals reside for now. But with a bye week to get healthy for their trip to Heinz Field, and few bona fide intimidating opponents on the horizon, there's a lot to suggest that maybe they could distinguish themselves, at least a little. Despite their depth issues, the Bengals have carved out an offensive identity over these past few weeks, mainly by making sure that their best player is their most targeted one. Dalton has shaken off the poor performances of the first two weeks. They're using their best back more often. Their defense has played well all season, and still has a ton of upside.
I wrote on Friday about how if the Bengals were a stock, I'd invest in them. That might have been a partial overreaction to one win over the Browns, and it might have represented me just wanting to strike a different tune than the one most of us have been singing since the season-opening disaster against the Ravens. But it also reflected the fact that despite their flaws, the Bengals do have a nice stable of young players to go along with their established core, and a bunch of games in front of them that - taken individually - look winnable.
That doesn't mean that the Bengals are going to be great this season. They could be good, though. Or even just decent.
Which, in this league, this season, might be good enough.