CINCINNATI (AP) — The previous time the Bengals started so well, they went to the Super Bowl. And that fact is not lost on this 6-0 team as it enjoys its bye week.
A franchise that hasn’t won a postseason game since the 1990 season is thinking that it finally has what it takes to go deep into the playoffs now that Andy Dalton is playing like one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Win just one playoff game? How about running the postseason table?
“What we’ve done is win every chance we’ve had, and there’s a lot more of that we’re going to have to do going forward to put ourselves in position to do what we want,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “And that’s to make the playoffs and have the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl.”
Yes, a team that has the sixth-longest stretch of playoff futility in NFL history is talking about making it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season, when it also started 6-0. This start feels a bit like that one.
Much of it comes from the quarterback.
The Bengals have made the playoffs each of the past four seasons and lost in the first round each time with Dalton playing some of his worst games. As the postseason losses multiplied, Dalton acquired the label of caretaker quarterback. The Bengals talked about having the players around him elevate their game.
So far, nobody’s taken a bigger step up than Dalton, who has ranked among the NFL’s passing leaders all season. The most telling statistic: He leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating, one of the best measures of an elite quarterback.
He’s grown into more of a leader on the practice field and in the meeting rooms. He’s been unflappable on game days, even overcoming a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to get a win against Seattle.
Everyone around him notices the difference.
“It’s just going out there with confidence,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “I know you all have noticed with Andy. He’s on top of everything.”
He’s got a lot of options, and that’s part of it. Tyler Eifert missed virtually all of last season with an elbow injury, and is on pace to set franchise marks for touchdowns, catches and yards by a tight end. Marvin Jones missed all of last season and is third on the team with 24 catches and three touchdowns.
Five players have at least 16 catches, giving the Bengals such a diversified offense that opposing defenses have gone conservative against them, blitzing less and dropping into deep coverage.
“It’s been happening quite a bit here lately,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. “That’s a sign of respect.”
And Dalton has done an exceptional job of figuring out who’s the best option on each play and getting the ball to him quickly.
“It is nice to have all the different guys that we have who can play a big part in the game,” Dalton said. “So we feel really good about where we’re at.”
The one issue with the offense has been the running game. Jeremy Hill fumbled twice during a game and was benched, giving Giovani Bernard a chance to get more carries. Hill has 74 carries — three fewer than Bernard — and is averaging only 3.1 yards per attempt.
“I know the player he can be, so I’m going to keep pushing him to get there,” Jackson said. “I mean, we need him. He’s going to be a huge part down the stretch run once we get back here.”
The Bengals have been fortunate enough to avoid significant injuries so far. Middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is expected back after missing the first part of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery.
During their streak of four straight first-round losses, the Bengals have had to play on the road three times. They’re in position to think about home-field advantage during their bye.
They go to Pittsburgh for their next game with a chance to take control of the division. They’ve already won at Baltimore, which is in last place, and have two games remaining with Cleveland. A win in Pittsburgh would set a franchise record for best start and increase their chances of a favorable seeding for the playoffs.
“It’s great that we’re 6-0, but we’re chasing something great and we know it,” Jones said.
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