<
>

Bengal Morning Takes: Atop the AFC North

CINCINNATI -- It's still early. Very early.

But the Cincinnati Bengals have many reasons to feel good about the defense of their division title after two weeks.

For starters, they are one of four AFC teams with 2-0 records. If the Eagles beat the Colts in this week's Monday night game, that would make the Bengals one of seven teams in the entire league with 2-0 marks. Of those seven, only three, the Panthers, Broncos and Bengals, were playoff teams last season.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, since 1990, teams that start a season with a 3-0 record have a 75.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. So the Bengals have to be feeling good about their postseason aspirations if they can breeze into the Week 4 bye undefeated.

To get to 3-0, the Bengals will have to extend their regular-season home winning streak to 11 games next week when Tennessee comes to town. If they win that game, the Bengals will have set a new franchise record for consecutive regular-season home wins. If they continue to roll the way they have through these first two weeks, maybe they will have a chance at redemption from last season's playoff loss by hosting another postseason game this season.

The Ravens looked sharp last Thursday in their short-week showdown against the Steelers, responding well to the Ray Rice drama swirling around them. The blowout win showed two things: that Baltimore isn't going to roll over this season, distractions or not, and that Pittsburgh might be in the midst of another mediocre season under Mike Tomlin. I personally thought the Steelers would be the Bengals' staunchest division competitor this season. But to this point that is not looking like the case.

Cleveland, which lost to Pittsburgh Week 1, seems to have found a quarterback in Brian Hoyer, riding him and a power-running game to a narrow win against a good Saints team on Sunday. New Orleans might be 0-2, but it lost both games on walk-off field goals. The Saints also have yet to play a game inside their intimidating home venue this season.

The Bengals travel to New Orleans in November.

So for now, it's clear Cincinnati has the best team in the AFC North. Heck, for now, the Bengals appear to be one of the best teams in football. They ranked fifth in last week's ESPN Power Rankings, and with the Seahawks and 49ers losing this week, you have to figure they rise at least a spot or two. The Eagles were ranked fourth, so if they lose Monday night, the Bengals have another team they could overtake.

Another reason Bengals fans should feel optimistic: their team won convincingly Sunday without any contributions from A.J. Green, limited help from Vontaze Burfict and Kevin Zeitler, unexpected contributions from defensive tackle Devon Still, who had not played since Week 15 last season, and an offense that featured a rookie and a second-year player at running back. Youth and depth were keys to Sunday's win.

Teams with youth and depth don't just win in the short term.

So hey, while it is still incredibly early, if the Bengals keep playing like they did these past two Sundays, look for them to stay atop the AFC North for several weeks to come.