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I was at a training camp practice, sometime in early August, when someone approached me and asked what my hopes for the season were.
I didn't think that on paper, the Bengals had a playoff team, so I didn't want to talk about them making the postseason.
Which meant that I didn't want to talk about them playing for something far more meaningful than a simple playoff berth,
Nor did I think the Bengals had a team that would be so bad that setting any kind of expectation was a waste of time.
So I looked at this guy and simply muttered "I want to see them play meaningful games in December."
The Bengals' playoff chances head into the year's final month alive and, well, well. Their win over the absolutely God-awful Browns sends them into December with a 5-6 record that in this season of craptastic football being rewarded not only has them not just mathematically alive, but has the rest of us who are starving for a long-overdue playoff breakthrough either trying to envision all the different playoff scenarios or, for the most ambitious among us, talking ourselves into imagining what the playoff picture might look like if the Bengals can beat the Steelers next Monday.
Part of me can't believe we're even talking about this.
Another part of me realizes that where the Bengals are is a byproduct of both their schedule and the NFL being more watered-down than a resort cocktail. Fortunately, the Browns have appeared twice on their schedule, and dreck like the Bills, Colts, and Broncos have appeared one apiece. If I count Cleveland twice, the combined win-loss record of the five teams the Bengals have beaten is 12-42.
Give them credit for at least being able to beat the teams they should, I guess.
Harping solely on who the Bengals have beaten and what the NFL isn't wouldn't do them justice, as the home team played pretty well on their own merit against the Browns. Taking everything the Bengals were able to accomplish with huge, Cleveland-dog-pound-mask-wearing-fan grains of salt, they played pretty well today.
Joe Mixon was the headliner, with a fantastic performance that hopefully helped to offer glimpses of how the Bengals can run the ball across the season's final five weeks. He was effective as both a runner and a receiver, often carrying the Cincinnati offense against a Cleveland front that actually normally does a nice job against the rush.
Andy Dalton played a clean game, aided by both solid play of the offensive line and the continuing emergence of Tyler Kroft as a red zone threat. AJ Green didn't have one of his best days, and his best play of the afternoon - a beautiful catch and toe-tap on the sideline - went for naught, but he was still productive, and the re-emergence of Tyler Boyd was an encouraging sign as well.
On defense, the Bengals were the very definition of bend, but don't break. Carl Lawson was outstanding. The unit as a whole wasn't awful. But they didn't create turnovers, and much of their performance seemed to hinge on Cleveland mistakes.
Whatever. We'll take it.
So here they are, charging toward December, not exactly favorites to make the playoffs, but certainly impossible to count out. Their game against the Steelers next week could either springboard them to a really fun final quarter of the season, or remind us that any enthusiasm about this massively flawed Bengals team is horribly misguided. The Browns are such a shit-show that it's hard to take what the Bengals did well today and apply it to a week from tomorrow, or any other game on their schedule.
But at least they'll go into December with a chance.
Which is all I hoped for back in August.