CINCINNATI -- Before we get too deep into this, the following must be said: Each of the Cincinnati Bengals' remaining 13 games have value.
Sure, these next four or five or six or seven weeks could be the catalyst to the Bengals' desire to return to the top of the AFC North mountain. But it's hard to say at this still very early stage that anything will be decided before November.
But all of that aside, yes, the 3-0 Bengals currently find themselves in their division's driver's seat. As we make the turn into the close of the first quarter of the season, they have a comfortable lead over the Browns and Ravens, and are a win up on their rival Steelers. Many are of the opinion that now that Pittsburgh starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out for possibly six weeks due to a bone bruise and an MCL sprain in his left knee, the Bengals' lead over the rest of the division will only grow.
It's easy to think that, but the Bengals must keep one thing firmly in mind for the foreseeable future -- only they control their fate. They still have to win games.
It really is just that simple. Even if Roethlisberger is out possibly up to or through Cincinnati's Week 8 trip to the Steel City, the Bengals can't be keeping their eyes on the headlines that come out of Pittsburgh. If they want to take advantage of Roethlisberger's absence, they will do what they have done to this point: win.
Besides, they have their own anxieties to worry about. Following Sunday's impressive 28-24 win at Baltimore, they return home for games against good, but beatable, teams in Kansas City and Seattle. At the very least, a split of those games would be ideal as the Bengals head to Buffalo in three weeks for their third road game of the year. Although the Bills were soundly beaten at home by New England two weeks ago, they are showing glimpses of offensive and defensive balance that could make them a legitimate player by season's end.
After Buffalo, the Bengals will have a much-needed bye ahead of their Nov. 1 showdown in Pittsburgh. Although ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Monday morning that the Steelers are operating under the assumption that Roethlisberger's timetable for a return will be six weeks (much like amount of time it took for Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson to come back from a preseason MCL sprain), knowing Roethlisberger, it wouldn't be surprising if he came back sooner.
Said ESPN medical analyst Dr. Mark Adickes on SportsCenter: "A lot of it has to do with how tough the athlete is. ... I would not be surprised if he comes back in four weeks. It all depends on how much pain you're having. They can put a brace on his knee to make it stable."
If Roethlisberger does make his return the afternoon the Bengals visit his team, expect Cincinnati's defenders to try hard to test his mobility. It's worth noting that Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who began the season on the physically unable to perform list, could be healthy enough to play by then. If he is, don't be surprised if he tests his own surgically repaired knee in constant pursuit of Roethlisberger.