CINCINNATI -- The regular season is officially one week old, and the Cincinnati Bengals are leading the AFC North outright.
The Bengals took sole possession of the division after beating the Baltimore Ravens 34-23 at home on Thursday night. But even though the Bengals (2-0, 1-0 AFC North) are undefeated, their identity is a bit more confusing than their stat line.
The Bengals are two games into the season and remain somewhat of a mystery. They've shown flashes of brilliance, but they haven't put it together in any sort of consistent fashion. Quarterback Andy Dalton looked as sharp as ever when throwing for four touchdowns in the first half against the Ravens, and then he led the offense to five straight punts starting at the 1:22 mark of the second quarter.
At times the Bengals have looked like they possess the qualities to win the AFC North, and at other times they have looked like the team that went 7-9 last season.
It's not a complete surprise that the Bengals might take some time to find their identity. They spent the offseason ridding themselves of their longtime veterans and assembled one of the youngest rosters in the league in the process. There are young players on almost every unit on the team, and the Bengals are prepared for the growing pains associated with that movement.
They've also been rewarded by positive plays from rookies Jessie Bates, who had his first interception against the Ravens, and Sam Hubbard, who notched his first sack. It certainly didn't help that the Bengals had lost center Billy Price in the first half, while running back Joe Mixon came in and out of the game due to a knee injury.
There certainly is potential, even though the Bengals have spent the past two games treading the line between winning and losing. After going up by three touchdowns against the Ravens, they appeared to unravel momentarily, allowing a late touchdown in the first half and then letting the Ravens get within five points in the fourth quarter.
Yet, when it counted, the Bengals put together a field goal drive to extend the lead to eight and keep things just out of reach. Then Shawn Williams forced a fumble and Dre Kirkpatrick scooped it up to stop any potential Ravens comeback.
"We still have one (improvement) we need to make, one we haven't done a good job of in the first two games, which is making sure we close out football games," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "When you get the lead, you want to be able to handle it and close it out. I thought the offense today, with the drive to put points on the board to go back up by eight was key. Our quarterback is playing his tail off and the guys today took care of him. We caught the ball today. I think we only had one drop, if I can recall, and that was big. That was key. Andy directed the offense, we went in and out of different tempo styles and tried to keep them back on their heels. We did a good job throughout."
It was the same days earlier against the Colts, when it appeared they were about to give up a go-ahead score late in the game. Instead, safety Clayton Fejedelem, who was subbing in for the then-ejected Williams, came up with a game-winning fumble to seal the win.
Maybe that's who the Bengals are destined to be: a team that doesn't blow anyone away but comes up with just enough big plays to win. They already can count Fejedelem's and Williams' plays as signs of a team that possesses a killer instinct.
What's clear is they have the talent to be competitive, thanks to a stout defensive line, a bevy of targets for Dalton and the running back duo of Mixon and Giovani Bernard. The defensive line didn't miss a beat after starting defensive end Michael Johnson went down with an injury, and Hubbard stepped up with a key sack and tackle for loss. Young linebackers Hardy Nickerson and Jordan Evans appeared to mostly fare fine with starting middle linebacker Preston Brown out because of an injury and Vontaze Burfict sitting out due to a suspension.
However, the Bengals' lapses are certainly cause for concern, especially with a difficult schedule looming. If the Bengals can find a way to string their good moments together, they certainly can make some noise in the AFC North.
"We're learning and growing," Lewis said. "We've got a long way to go. It's early in the season but we came out here (Thursday) and played pretty solid in all three phases."
But with back-to-back road trips coming up against the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, they'll have to figure out quickly just what kind of team they are.