The Cincinnati Bengals aren't just the first AFC North team to start their season with a 5-0 record since the NFL re-aligned its divisions in 2002, they're also the first Bengals team to start 5-0 since 1988, which is also the last time this franchise went to the Super Bowl. These Bengals aren't there yet, of course, but after beating the Seahawks 27-24 in overtime and overcoming a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit in doing so, they proved that they aren't the hothouse flowers they've been in many crucial situations since Andy Dalton became the quarterback in 2011.
Dalton has been rightly slammed for his abysmal showings in the postseason and regarded as a regular-season star with little else going for him, but after today's effort against Seattle's defense, it's hard to say what else he can do to further prove his growth until the playoffs roll around again. Dalton completed 30 of 44 passes for 335 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against a defense that had been the NFL's best in each of the last two seasons. He's on pace for 4,857 passing yards and 35 passing touchdowns against just six interceptions. And he held it together despite the Seahawks sacking him four times (twice as many sacks as he'd had through the first four games) and pressuring him on several other occasions. Tight end Tyler Eifert was the main man in this game after the Seahawks made an adjustment to have Richard Sherman cover A.J. Green wherever he went, catching both of Dalton's touchdown passes through baffling coverage miscues on Seattle's side. On both touchdowns, safety Kam Chancellor let Eifert pass through with no opposition.
It's not just Dalton, Green and Eifert who make this team a formidable contender—Giovani Bernard ran 15 times for 80 yards, and Cincinnati's defense clamped down when it mattered in the fourth quarter. The same unit that allowed 169 rushing yards to undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls and several deep completions from Russell Wilson to his receivers limited the Seahawks to punts on their last six drives, including twice in overtime. And kicker Mike Nugent ran onto the field when his team had no timeouts left to boot a 31-yard game-tying field goal as time expired, adding the game-winner from 42 yards out with 3:36 left in extra time.
“That was a hell of a fourth and fifth quarter,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said after the game. “I'm proud of our guys, and I feel good about the fact that we just kept playing. No flinching. We righted ourselves and got going, and that's what football season is about. It's a long year, against a lot of good teams, and we've got to keep that up. Today was a good step to understanding what we can do, and if we get in those situations, we can keep fighting back.”
Seattle's generally porous offensive line played well enough in fits and starts for Rawls to go off in place of the injured Marshawn Lynch, but there was enough about the Seahawks' playcalling and execution to make many wonder if the two-time defending NFC champs are even in playoff form this season. The team's continued and baffling underuse of Jimmy Graham continued—Graham caught just three passes for 30 yards on five targets—and there were coverage breakdowns all over the place. Seattle's decision to put Rawls on the bench for the opening drive of overtime in favor of veteran Fred Jackson raised a lot of eyebrows, to be sure.
“It's difficult to come out of the game like this after playing so well, and doing probably the best job we'd done all year through three quarters,” head coach Pete Carroll said. “Against a really good team in a really tough situation and all of that, it's really difficult to leave here not winning. I've got to look right at me—when you look across the board and [you don't] finish the way you need to on defense, offense, special teams—it starts right at the top. It starts with me.”
Last season, the Seahawks had a similarly slow start on the way to a 3-3 mark to begin the season. They're 2-3 now with the 4-0 Panthers coming to town, and this feels different. That team had enough on the ball to turn it around. Now, it seems as if Carroll is struggling for answers in ways he hasn't before.
The Bengals don't seem to be struggling for answers at this point—they're forcing opponents to ask questions, and that's why they're one of the best teams in the league as it stands now.