Bengals at a crossroads

The Bengals need Carson Palmer to cut down on turnovers if the team is going to rebound. Andrew Weber/US Presswire

Explosion or implosion.

The Cincinnati Bengals will take one of these two routes in the next few weeks, and it starts Sunday with a huge road game against the Atlanta Falcons (4-2).

So far the reigning AFC North champions are one of the NFL's biggest underachievers. Coming off a playoff appearance, Cincinnati is only 2-3 after back-to-back losses to the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Coming off the bye, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told his players this week that there are no more excuses. With so much talent, strong personalities and a head coach in the final year of his contract, the Bengals will be a must-watch team in the second half of the season. You're either going to see a talented group come together or a train wreck.

Here are several reasons it could go either way.

Reasons for a Bengals explosion:

The talent is immense. The Bengals are considered major underachievers because their talent is playoff-caliber. This is the deepest and best collection of players of the Lewis era. It's a good mix of youth and experience on both sides of the football. Cincinnati hit on recent draft picks such as Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall and Keith Rivers to build the defense and went with veteran free agents Cedric Benson and Terrell Owens to improve the offense. Early production from 2010 first-round pick Jermaine Gresham and third-rounder Jordan Shipley is also a positive sign this group will come together.

Quarterback play will improve. Bengals starting quarterback Carson Palmer was drilled in the media during the bye week. In his last game, he threw three interceptions in a loss to Tampa. He is on pace for 19 picks this year, which would be the second-highest total of his career. But Palmer has too much natural ability to play this badly all season. He may not be the quarterback he was in 2005, but Palmer is certainly capable of playing better, and that would be a major plus for Cincinnati's offense. Despite all the criticism, the Bengals are No. 7 in the NFL in passing offense. A few improvements and fewer turnovers by Palmer would get the offense back on track.

Defense hasn't hit its stride. Cincinnati's defense isn't playing poorly, but the unit hasn't reached its form of 2009, either. The Bengals were fourth in the league in total defense a year ago, and it was the primary reason Cincinnati swept the AFC North and made the playoffs. So far Mike Zimmer's group has been little better than average, ranking No. 13. The Bengals have given up at least 23 points in all three losses. And the pass rush has been a major problem -- it was something Zimmer addressed during the bye week. Cincinnati's defense showed flashes of what it's capable of in a 15-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals need more performances like that one to help turn around the season.

Reasons for Bengals implosion:

Brutal schedule. One of the downsides to winning a division title is you get a first-place schedule the following year. Cincinnati needed a fast start but didn't get it. Now the Bengals have to survive a brutal stretch that includes seven of eight upcoming games against teams with winning records. We will find out all we need to know about the Bengals in the next few weeks when they face Atlanta (4-2), the Miami Dolphins (3-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) and Indianapolis Colts (4-2) in consecutive weeks. They also have games against the New Orleans Saints (4-2) and New York Jets (5-1). Had Cincinnati beaten Cleveland and Tampa Bay, the Bengals could afford a few stumbles. Now there is little room for error. The Bengals have to go 8-3 the rest of the way to finish 10-6 and have a legitimate shot at the wild card in the AFC.

Strong personalities. The AFC North blog predicted in training camp that this team needed to win early or things could snowball. We're already seeing several signs of frustration with the Bengals. Running back Cedric Benson said earlier this season that he wasn't happy about Cincinnati's pass-heavy play calling. Receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco both want the football, but only one can shine in a given week. Ochocinco recently admitted the offense lacks chemistry and he's trying old gimmicks to get back to form. Overall the Bengals have done a fairly good job of keeping their frustrations in house. But more losing will only bring things to the surface.

Lewis' contract status a lingering issue. Lewis entering the final year of his contract was one of several key topics during the offseason, but it has mostly gone away since the beginning of the regular season. As we approach the second half, expect this topic to resurface regardless of whether the Bengals are winning or losing. Lewis was the 2009 NFL Coach of the Year after leading the surprising Bengals to the postseason. But he and the team were unable to reach an agreement on a new deal. It is no secret in NFL circles that coaching the Bengals isn't easy, and Lewis has earned a lot of respect for the job he has done in Cincinnati. Lewis doesn't seem opposed to the idea of becoming a free agent. But will it have an impact on the way the team responds?