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In From the Wild

On the opening Monday Night game of the 2007 season, the Bengals beat the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, 27-20; that was the last time Cincinnati could agree that their team was a contender. After that, they wandered out into the wilderness and remained lost for two whole seasons.

Yet after five games, something familiar, yet entirely different, has emerged from the fog. This new form of Bengal is hardened and doesn’t like to talk much. They survived the on berries, wild game and meaningless late-season wins. Times were tough and many thought a new low was inevitable for the hapless Bengals last season.

But after a particularly miserable drubbing to the Colts in Week 14, some weird, introspective, peyote-like moment happened in the locker room. The team stared at their horrors in the face; all of the egos, all of the losing and blaming bubbled to the surface of Marvin Lewis’ cauldron. It was a nightmare, but they lived.

And now they have arrived.

Two days ago in Baltimore, these Cincinnati Bengals walked away with their last divisional opponent vanquished face down in the dirt. In all three times, the Bengals went down early, demonstrated their new warrior mind-frame, and outlasted their foes. These guys are tough as railroad spikes and their ability to pull off fourth-quarter comebacks on a regular basis obviously runs deeper than just preparation and coaching adjustments; it speaks to those ambiguous intangibles that coaches love like heart and moral fiber.

The Ravens were tops at stopping the run and Cedric Benson wore them out on his way to 120 yards. Baltimore’s offense was advertized as “rebuilt” and “explosive,” and, with the exception of one long Ray Rice run caused by a missed tackle, the Bengals defense had no problems containing Joe Flacco and his purple toys.

Sure Carson Palmer looked great (Ed Reed happens to everybody), Ocho was sharp (and I mean everybody), and Chris Henry finally got loose down the sideline on a deep ball, but the offense racked up over 400 yards because of their gritty linemen. In the second half, the Ravens defensive line, anchored by the human aircraft-carrier Haloti Ngata, were getting blown off of the line on running plays. Palmer was only sacked twice and had time to throw throughout most of the game. Even with backups, Evan Mathis and Dennis Roland seeing significant snaps, this line seamlessly transitioned big guys in and out without losing much rhythm; offensive-line coach Paul Alexander deserves tons of credit for an excellent start this season.

Another huge positive factor has been the play of cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. It was as if the Raven receivers decided to go to the racetrack or golf course instead of play football; were they there? If these two can continue to shut down the opposition’s top receiver, I suspect that we will continue to see more sacks and pressure on the quarterback as a result. They can be left in single-coverage which allows for more safety and linebacker blitzing—a perfect equation for sacks. It’s only Week 5, but a Pro-Bowl invitation for at least one of them may be in order.

The final major bright spot worth pointing out is our favorite golden boy, Carson Palmer. Those fans clamoring for the big-armed, sling-shooting Palmer of 2005 might feel somewhat underwhelmed by his play so far, but no matter what his stats look like, he has risen to the game’s ultimate challenge of playing from behind and orchestrating the win in every game this season.

I’ve shared my skepticism on Carson’s ability to improve on the things I felt he had faltered in like pocket-presence and clutch ability. I cautioned against the belief that just because No. 9 was back, things would automatically turn around. I am quite delighted that Mr. Palmer has proven me dead wrong on these points. While we still can’t compare Carson to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, there are very few other quarterbacks in the league that can manage five straight successful comebacks to start out the year.

The reshaping of the team identity from a dainty, calculated air-attack into a steam-rolling armored unit is still a work in progress. Despite exceeding most expectations, the team has yet operate at full speed. The new Bengals have shock-and-awed their way to first place and they haven’t even gotten the hang of this thing yet.

At this point, the league is going to take the Bengals seriously. The divisional games will only get more bitter and brutal. Teams are going to brace themselves against the Bengals’ late-game punch, and it will be up to the players and coaches to further grow into their new roles. While they’re not quite in the AFC North driver’s seat yet, Cincinnati has certainly moved up to the passenger seat and buckled in the safety belt.

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