It's hard to find the Cincinnati Bengals on television these days, and I'm not talking about primetime games. Wait, you're telling me there are no Bengals starring on a dating show or any other reality series?
"Unless you want to watch people sit in a room and never speak," Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "I think most guys on the team will tell you they’ve probably heard A.J. [Green] speak three words and Andy [Dalton] tops him with five. That’s only when he has to call a game."
The Bengals' turnaround season -- going from the second-fewest wins in the NFL last season to the most in the AFC at the midway point of the season -- started when the team turned over the roster. The focus is no longer on divas (receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens). It's on division titles.
Dalton, the even-keeled leader with a will stronger than his arm, has made the Who Dey Nation forget about Carson Palmer, the franchise quarterback who no longer wanted to be with the franchise. Green, a promising touchdown machine, is more concerned about reaching the end zone than how to celebrate after he gets there. Big names such as Tank Johnson and Roy Williams were shed from the defense, which began the season with six new starters.
Fewer egos in the locker room has resulted in more wins on the field. Cincinnati (6-2) has matched its best start since 1988, when the team advanced to the Super Bowl, and has put together its longest winning streak (five) since that same season. In fact, the Bengals have as many fourth-quarter comebacks this season (four) as total wins last season as they head into Sunday's showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3).
"We felt like we made the best decision for our team, and moved on from guys that didn’t want to be here," Whitworth said. "The guys that are still here are the guys that have acutally played the last three or four years we’ve been together and have really been the true nucleus of the team, not the media’s nucleus."
The preseason perception was the Bengals were going to be the NFL's worst team. In ESPN's first power rankings, Cincinnati was last at No. 32. Nine weeks into the season, the Bengals are No. 10 and ahead of the Patriots.
If the regular season ended today, the Bengals would be the AFC's top seed.
Are these Bengals for real?
"I won’t say if we’re for real or not. But at this point of the season, you’re are what you are," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "Your record should speak for itself."
Skeptics will point to the fact that the Bengals' first-half opponents have a combined record of 16-33. But Cincinnati beat Buffalo a week after the Bills defeated New England, and the Bengals have won at two places (Jacksonville and Tennessee) where the Ravens have lost this season.
The road ahead for the Bengals will be much tougher with four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore along with a meeting with the AFC South-leading Houston Texans. The combined record of the Bengals' remaining opponents are 36-31.
The Bengals have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves. That is, if they felt like they had something to prove.
"We don’t pay that much attention to it," Whitworth said. "We have a young football team that doesn’t worry about that stuff too much because they don’t understand it. That works out in our favor."
Head coach Marvin Lewis isn't concerned the season will become too big for his young players.
"We're still the same team, nothing has changed," he said. "For all of our internal things, we still have the same things in front of us that we had at the start of the year. ... They have some confidence [now], but they know they have to go out and make more plays than the other team, regardless of where they are in other people's minds."
The maturity of this young team has been tested, and it goes beyond come-from-behind fourth-quarter victories over Cleveland, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Tennessee (three of which came on the road). There has been off-the-field drama from Palmer not reporting to the team (to demand a trade) to Cedric Benson serving jail time before the season and a one-game suspension during it to starting wide receiver Jerome Simpson having a drug bust at his home.
Whitworth said the Bengals have handed these potential distractions in-house as a team.
“I don’t think we have individuals. That’s why we didn’t name captains because I think we have a lot of guys that deserve to be captains,” Whitworth said. “I think that’s the mark of a good football team. When we lead the team and we police the team and Marvin [Lewis] gets to kind of direct practice that makes things a whole lot easier on a head coach. That’s the kind of team we have and like I said I think we have started over."
The Bengals' surprising run has been very un-Bengal like. The offense is efficient and rarely makes unforced errors.
In the red zone, Dalton has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. His 12 total touchdowns is the most by a rookie in the team's first eight games of the season since the 1970 merger.
"He’s never rattled and he sees the big picture," Whitworth said. "Good play or bad play, the next play is the only play that matters. He takes care of the football. He doesn’t make the stupid play by having the ego to think he can make that play. He plays thinking what’s the best decision for my football team. It’s very impressive."
The Bengals defense, which has been in the top 5 for most of the season, has been aggressive whether it's press coverage by the cornerbacks or the front seven squashing the run game. Cincinnati's mentality led to defensive touchdowns in three straight games, the first time that has happened since 1983.
"We want to attack teams," Crocker said. "We really want to dictate what game it’s going to be. If you look the second half of games and fourth quarters, we’ve been very, very smart."
The Bengals' next big challenge is to win back the fans. Their string of seven straight blackouts ends Sunday, but that might be an indication of the number of Steelers fans showing up.
The players hope continued success will cause their own fans to fill up Paul Brown Stadium again.
"You’re entitled to any opinion that you have," Crocker said. "If you don’t feel like your team is competitive, then you shouldn’t go to the games. I can understsand that. In that sense, we have to earn the fans back. We have to go out there, win ball games and then they’ll show up."