This weekend's game in Cincinnati is a gripping case study on whether one team can get to the top and the other can stay on top. We largely know what Seattle is, even if they're still a little dysfunctional on offense. We know what the Bengals have been. But what are they becoming?
Haunted by winters past, Andy Dalton is famously 0-4 in the playoffs, and has never played past January 7. Four games, four losses, completing just 55 percent of his passes, with one touchdown and six interceptions.
So it's fitting that we frame Dalton at the quarter pole of the season. He's now 4-0, completing 67 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns and one interception.
In four playoff games, his yards gained per pass attempt is 5.53. This year, it's 10.2. His playoff passer rating is 57.8. So far this year it's 123.0. His yards per game in the playoffs is 218.3. This year it's 296.8.
Omen? Or more poor performance after Christmas? Sure, the weather is better in September and he's feasting on some soft defenses, like the Chiefs and Ravens. Which is what makes Sunday's contest so telling.
Seattle's defense has been revived since Kam Chancellor returned from his misguided holdout. (No doubt he deserves his money, but forfeiting quarter-million-dollar paychecks isn't the most aesthetically agreeable way to do it.) And he's learned that proving his worth, not pouting over his salary, is the best business model.
Seattle surrendered 61 points to the Rams and Packers, and 10 points since the safety nonpareil came back to the 'Hawks nest.
After starting 0-2, Seattle is trying to navigate their leaky offensive line and lack of skill players not named Marshawn Lynch. And even with Chancellor in the fold they needed refs to blow the infamous "swat play" at the end of the Lions game to even out to 2-2.
But they're playing the kind of bone-crunching defense we see in January, the kind that's humbled Dalton four times. If Cincinnati can find the cracks in the ball-hawking Seahawks, they will obviously go 5-0. That will give them at least a two-game lead in the AFC North, which is way more enervated than most of us anticipated. Baltimore was a preseason favorite to contend for the Super Bowl. And the Steelers were slated to win 10 or 11 games before Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his right knee.
And while the Bengals proved that they can gag postseason games in or out of Ohio, they surely would rather play the Patriots in the Jungle. It's hard to think of a roster more replete with talent than that of the Bengals, who have a conga line of high-end athletes at WR and RB, and a first-round talent at tight end in Tyler Eifert.
The Bengals are first in yards per game (422) and second in points per game (30.3). They short-circuited the scoreboard last week against Kansas City, but the Seahawks' defense allows just 190 passing yards per game, and hasn't surrendered a touchdown since Week 2. (Detroit's lone TD Monday night came on a fumble recovery.)
On a more muted level, this season is also a referendum on Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. The longest-tenured coach (not named Belichick) in the NFL, Lewis, like his QB, hasn't won a playoff game entering his 13th season under the headset.
In the cold calculus of pro football, it's a small miracle that Lewis is still employed. You can't deny their regular-season success -- averaging 10 wins over the last four years -- or their playoff futility. Perhaps the Bengals are the team iteration of Peyton Manning.
Cincinnati has trailed for fewer than two minutes all season. It will be interesting to see how Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton respond to a championship team that grabs the lead. It just might feel like January.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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