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Poll: Bengals a legit Super Bowl contender?

CINCINNATI -- Are the Cincinnati Bengals a legitimate Super Bowl contender?

Fifteen years ago, you probably would have snickered reading that. Heck, 10 years ago you would have believed anyone who suggested it was crazy.

But now? In 2014? It's not so far-fetched a question.

As the only undefeated team in the AFC through the first three weeks of the season, the Bengals are looking down on the rest of the conference. They have good reason to stick out their chests and beat them if they wanted to. But they don't.

To hear Bengals coaches and players tell it, all they have done so far is accomplish exactly what they set out to do when the season began: win the first three games. Next on the to-do list is to extend that string of victories with a Week 5 victory against the Patriots in New England in 14 days. The Bengals have their bye next Sunday, which gives them time to rest, reflect on the way the year has begun and look forward to what's on the horizon.

What's on the horizon after next week are 13 more regular-season games to prove they are for real. And then, if they're lucky, the Bengals will have multiple weeks this postseason to prove they do belong in the Super Bowl conversation. In each of the past three postseasons, the Bengals' Super Bowl dreams were squashed in the first week of the playoffs.

If we are to truly answer the question in the headline in the affirmative, we first must see the Bengals do what has eluded them for a generation: win a playoff game. For that reason, it's far too early to legitimately ask this question. Still, after three weeks in which they completely dominated their opponents and have built up momentum, it makes sense to wonder if this is finally the Bengals' year.

It makes sense for Bengals fans, with their heavily guarded but still excited early optimism, to not only dream about 2014 being synonymous with 1981 and 1988, but also dream about this year standing apart from those monumental campaigns. Those are, of course, the only two seasons the Bengals have competed for the Lombardi Trophy to this point.

With championship aspirations floating around their fan base, the Bengals are just trying to remain grounded, remain humbled ... and remain perfect.

"We're hunting excellence," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "Right now, we just have to keep the pedal to the metal. When January comes, we'll see where we're at."