About a month and a half ago, the Bengals were charging into the second quarter of their season with a 3-1 record, and were coming off of their most emotional win since 2015, a stirring last-second victory over the Falcons in Atlanta. Four games into the season, we felt pretty damn good. The Bengals had emerged from an opening stretch of having to play three of four on the road with three victories. They were about to get Vontaze Burfict back. And games that over the previous two seasons had eluded them were now being won.
Maybe this was going to be a better season than we'd expected.
Heading into the third quarter of the season, the vibe is different. The Bengals still own two more wins than losses, and their most recent triumph again came in the closing moments, but 5-3 feels different than 3-1, especially after mounting injuries, more narrative-building losses to the Steelers at home and to the Chiefs in prime time, the reality that the team's defense just isn't going to be that good, and an inability or unwillingness to make roster upgrades in trades or via free agency.
The AJ Green toe injury has added layers of pessimism to a dreary last few weeks that's bled into this Sunday's game against the Saints.
It's hard to find anyone who believes the Bengals can beat New Orleans, and I'd be lying if I told you I felt that good about their chances of pulling off the upset. But I've never wavered from my preseason pick of a 9-7 finish, and I'm not about to now, despite the mounting bad news. Next week's game in Baltimore is still winnable, perhaps more so now that Joe Flacco is dealing with a hip problem. The Bengals will be favored in at least four other games - both tilts against Cleveland, and home matches vs. Denver and Oakland, as we survey the AFC field, there don't appear to be many bona fide playoff contenders. The Ravens are a mess, the Dolphins can't yet be taken seriously (and the Bengals own the tiebreaker against them), and I'm not buying that the Titans' defense can carry them to nine or ten wins.
I don't believe the Bengals can catch the Steelers, who despite a tough record ahead, seem like a good bet to get to ten wins, which along with a tie, should be good enough for them to win the AFC North. But I think nine wins puts the Bengals in the playoffs as a wild card, and while not many would give them a chance of winning a playoff game if they qualified, a season in which the Bengals played in the postseason - if taken in a vacuum - would have to be considered a success, given the context of what occurred in 2016 and '17.
So even if the vibe isn't exactly one of great fan enthusiasm for a playoff push, and even if things don't appear to be that good right now, they're not as bad as they seem.
Andy Dalton is having a quality year, the defense does still have some building blocks, and they're starting the season's second half in better shape than most of the teams staring up at them. The Bengals are also in far better shape than they were at this time in each of the last two seasons.
It just doesn't feel like it.
Bengals v. Saints....
Here's how the Bengals win on Sunday:
Joe Mixon controls the game, and the clock. John Ross fills in capably for AJ Green. Teryl Austin's defense forces some turnovers. Alvin Kamara misses the team plane and can't get a flight out.
Those first three things, I think can happen. It's the fourth that's most bothersome. Kamara is a nightmare, especially for teams as thin at linebacker as the Bengals are. After watching Cincinnati linebackers struggle all season, I simply can't imagine they meet the challenge of Kamara at running back, or Ben Watson at tight end.
Maybe the Bengals' defensive line wins some battles at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps someone in the secondary has answers for Michael Thomas. It's possible, I guess, that Drew Brees plays his age.
But they're not stopping Kamara, and if the Bengals are forced to play from behind, I wonder about how they'll execute in a game that demands they be run-heavy.
Yes, nine wins is still possible, just a little less-so after Sunday.
Saints 31 Bengals 21 (New Orleans -5.5)
Your other week ten NFL guesses, in order of confidence.....
Arizona (+16.5) over Kansas City. The Chiefs are a blast to watch, but they've beaten just one team by 17 or more points. Of course, it was the Bengals. The Cardinals have improved, slightly. They won't win, but they won't join the Bengals in the 17-plus club either.
Detroit (+6.5) over Chicago. Khalil Mack is back, but even if the Lions have punted on their season, they're not the Jets, or the Bills.
Atlanta (-4) over Cleveland. The "Browns are a sneaky playoff contender" crowd has quieted, no?
Chargers (-9.5) over Oakland. I'd lay the points if the number was double what it is.
New England (-6.5) over Tennessee. This could be a better game than you'd think, but it also might not be. That's really true for most NFL games, now isn't it?
Jets (-6.5) over Buffalo. You'd have to be a hostage to be watching this game.
Seattle (+9.5) over the Rams. I'd like this more if I felt better about Chris Carson's health, but even if the Seahawks are no huge threat to score, the Rams are shaky defensively, and they don't blow many teams out.
Indianapolis (-3) over Jacksonville. Did you realize that Andrew Luck is second in the NFL in touchdown passes? Neither did anyone else.
Philadelphia (-7) over Dallas. America's Most Boring Team gets put on in prime time again. Do you know anyone who actually gets excited to watch the Cowboys?
San Francisco (-3) over Giants. It only seems like lousy NFC East teams get put on national TV every week.
Miami (+9.5) over Green Bay. Guess we should start rooting hard against the Dolphins now, huh?
Washington (+3) over Tampa Bay. Fitzmagic giveth, Fitzmagic taketh away.
Last week: 9-4
Last night: 1-0
This season: 73-56-4
Cincinnati v. South Florida.
In August, I would've done cartwheels if you would've told me that the Bearcats would win six games. I would've asked what kinds of drugs you were doing if you'd told me they'd win eight games. I would've made out with you if you would've told me they'd win ten games.
Now, you can't convince me they won't win at least ten games.
A win this week sets up a potentially huge opportunity next week, provided that UCF wins this weekend over Navy. It'd be a chance to be the first program to knock off last year's self-proclaimed national champs since 2016, it would push the Bearcats closer to a division title (UC could use some help from Houston on Saturday), and would give Luke Fickell his biggest forum yet, not only to show the country exactly how far his program has come, but to thrust himself into the conversation of coaches on the rise.
That's not a conversation we want to have right now, of course, but it's one that accompanies any successful UC football season.
This season has already been a success. Provided Cincinnati beats South Florida, it has a chance to be a special one.
Bearcats 34 Bulls 21 (USF +13)
There's other college football games....
Ohio State (-3.5) over Michigan State. OSU is a great value play here. The Buckeyes still have an excellent offense, and even with their defensive issues, they're not playing a good enough opponent this week to take advantage. OSU fans have been vocal on Twitter since Wednesday night. It's nice that they realized that Ohio State has a basketball team.
Tennessee (+5) over Kentucky. I wouldn't touch this one, as good as fun as the Wildcats have been, I don't like them in a spot where they're giving points on the road.
Indiana (-1.5) over Maryland. I will touch this one. Make it a good weekend for me, Peyton Ramsey.
Dayton over Morehead State.
There's other other college football games....
Mississippi State (+24.5) over Alabama. I have this year's Crimson Tide with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes and the 2005 Texas Longhorns as the best college football teams I've ever seen, and I don't think the Bulldogs have a prayer of beating them, but I do think Mississippi State is a tougher matchup for Alabama than LSU is, especially with a mobile quarterback, and we'll factor in a letdown possibility when we make our investment this weekend.
UMass/BYU under 60. I'm two for two betting the under in UMass games this year, so why not press my luck in a game played in miserable weather at what's essentially a 10:00am kick for the visiting team, which has a very inefficient offense.
Georgia (-14) over Auburn. Lost amid Alabama's awesomeness and UK's feel good-ness, is how the Dawgs have rebounded from losing to LSU, beating a game Florida team and drastically outplaying Kentucky.
Iowa (-10.5) over Northwestern. The Hawkeyes cover at home. Except that one time they didn't.
College football guessing: 33-29-1
Enjoy your weekend.