Bengals are no joke

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

CINCINNATI -- For a majority of the past 18 years, the Bengals were clearly the laughingstock of the NFL.

Whether it was personnel decisions, coaching hires or overall play on the field, Cincinnati football often produced more comedy than athletic prowess.

But you can stop laughing now. The 2009 Bengals are legit.

Cincinnati, one of the NFL's biggest surprises, pummeled the Baltimore Ravens in a 17-7 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. Cincinnati improved to 6-2 and 4-0 in the AFC North, which includes a season sweep of Baltimore (4-4).

"We are for real," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "All the talk, and all the hoopla about teams saying we’re the same old Cincinnati, that just fuels our fire. We don’t talk. We do our talking in practice. We don’t go to the press."

It’s about time people stop overlooking the Bengals. Here are four reasons why they should be taken seriously:

Bengals built to win in the AFC North

For the second time this season, the Bengals beat the Ravens at their own game: Hard running and a stout defense.

Bengals tailback Cedric Benson (117 yards, 34 carries) pulled off an extremely tough feat by rushing for more than 100 yards against the Ravens for the second time this season. Cincinnati’s defense registered four sacks and held the high-scoring Ravens to 215 yards of total offense.

It was a physical clinic as the Bengals took control on both sides in the trenches. Baltimore 's talented defense was caught guessing until it finally caught up to Cincinnati in the second half. On offense, the Ravens, usually the bullies, were 1 of 10 on third downs because they were constantly in third-and-long situations.

Cincinnati’s defense has been better than advertised.

“We can be a pretty darn good defense if we do what we are supposed to do and are consistent,” Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers said.

Palmer once again dominant

After missing 12 games with an elbow injury, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is making a strong claim to becoming a top five quarterback again in the NFL. When that’s the case, the Bengals have a chance to beat anyone.

Palmer has had back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons before and it didn’t get the Bengals anywhere. Now, Cincinnati is making Palmer more efficient by throwing the ball less and emphasizing the running game.

Against Baltimore, Palmer threw for 224 yards and one touchdown and had a 91.0 passer rating. He improved to 8-3 in 11 career starts against the Ravens, who were favored to win Sunday.

"I don’t think there was a guy in the room who didn’t think we were going to win," Palmer said of the Bengals. "But we expect to win by more than one or two touchdowns. Of course we only won by 10 [points], but we expected this."

Better than '05

This team is better than Cincinnati’s previous playoff team in 2005 for many of the reasons mentioned above. But this year's Bengals are also more experienced and mature.

“We were young,” Palmer said of '05. “But we were young and dumb.”

Four years ago, the Bengals thought the changing of the guard had already taken place after they won the AFC North. A home playoff loss to the Steelers reminded Cincinnati that focus is important, and the Bengals weren't able to put together similar success until this season.

The Bengals seem to have a growing level of appreciation for being in this position. Palmer is four years older at 29. Receiver Chad Ochocinco is 31. Many of the key players, such as Benson, Crocker and linebacker Dhani Jones, were tossed around the league before landing with the Bengals.

"The cool thing about this football team is not everybody in this [locker] room was wanted somewhere else," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "Some guys were here and weren’t successful, and everyone in this room loves to play football. It’s like backyard ball. We’re ready to fight and swing and get after it."

There are still occasional Bengal moments, such as linebacker Brandon Johnson jumping offside on a Baltimore punt, or defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene throwing his helmet in excitement toward the end of the game, drawing a 15-yard penalty. But these are minor mental errors that can be corrected.

Easy schedule

The hard part of the schedule is all but over for the Bengals.

Cincinnati played seven of eight games against teams currently with .500 records or better. But down the stretch the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) and Minnesota Vikings (7-1) are the only elite teams remaining on the schedule.

The Bengals will try to take command of the AFC North next week with a big road game against the Steelers. But after that Cincinnati plays the Oakland Raiders (2-6), Cleveland Browns (1-7) and Detroit Lions (1-7) in consecutive weeks.

That will give the Bengals a golden opportunity to pad their record and improve their playoff position.

It’s only Week 9. But it's officially time to consider the Bengals a force this year, even when few outside their locker room gave them a chance.

"We love people not thinking that we’re good," Whitworth said. "But I don’t think it matters."