The Cincinnati Bengals are a weird team.
Earlier this season, they stood atop the AFC with a 5-2 record, with their Week 7 blowout win in Baltimore paving the way to the pole position with the head-to-head tiebreaker. Then they lost to the New York Jets a week later and suffered a home blowout of their own against the Cleveland Browns a week after that. Suddenly at risk of falling back to .500, they won their next two games against the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers by a combined 50 points.
For the third time this season, they entered a matchup after back-to-back wins looking to extend it to three straight. And for a third time, they couldn’t secure the elusive three-game win streak that they haven’t pulled off since 2015.
Of course, the fact that they have had several chances to extend a winning streak to three games suggests already-better results than last year. Even with the sixth-hardest schedule heading into the season according to CBS Sports, the Bengals have been finding ways to win. For a team that had finished 2020 4-11-1 after a two-win 2019, this season has shown a lot of promise in this roster. Currently at 7-5 after 13 weeks, Cincinnati looks further along in their rebuild than anyone anticipated after just a couple of years.
Even so, it’s frustrating to watch a team unable to capitalize on opportunities to gain momentum and consistency in the win column. They’ll blow out good teams like the Ravens then lose to the Jets. Their defense can look dominant for a couple of games straight and then give up 24 unanswered to begin the following week.
Perhaps the best representation of the Bengals’ inconsistency is the season Joe Burrow is having. Coming off a brutal knee injury last year, no one was too sure how the sophomore quarterback would perform. It was an especially intriguing storyline after the big reason for the injury—the subpar offensive line in front of him—had been spurned in the draft to bring in Burrow’s college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase.
On one hand, Burrow is having a solid season. After a shaky couple of games to start the campaign, he’s looked confident and already led Cincinnati to the most wins they’ve had in a season since 2017. If the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs with the AFC’s sixth seed.
On the other hand, his turnover issues—as with the Bengals’ issues in that department—are worrisome. He leads the NFL in intercepted passes with 14, and his 3.7% interception rate is third behind Zach Wilson and Justin Fields. He threw two Sunday afternoon against the Chargers, making it his fourth game this season with multiple picks and his ninth with at least one.
The Bengals are having a better season than anyone expected if you look at their record at face value. They’re in position to make the playoffs—for now—for the first time since 2015. But at the end of the day, they’re still a rebuilding team struggling to build momentum. This isn’t a team that’s used to winning, there are still a lot of questions about that offensive line, and their biggest offensive performers are a rookie receiver and a sophomore quarterback.
So, yes, it’s frustrating to watch this Cincinnati team this year because of the hard time they have stringing together wins. But it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. The Bengals have won some big games this year, and the fact that they’re in a playoff-contending position at all is a huge step forward and better than most anyone expected. And though they may be playoff contenders, they’re certainly not built to make a Super Bowl run. Not yet.
A rebuild is a step-by-step process, and the Bengals have taken a big step in stacking wins this season. The next step is just stringing those wins together. For right now, the most important focus for Cincinnati is having a strong finish to the season. They have a difficult road ahead, with none of their five remaining opponents having a record worse than .500. The AFC has a lot of teams still in the hunt for playoff contention, so consistent or not, the Bengals can’t afford to take their foot off the gas.