MINNEAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the feel-good stories of the NFL, overcoming years of ineptitude and character self-assassination to put themselves atop of the AFC North and in position to go to the playoffs. But now you can start to understand why their fan base, so used to failure, is one of the more fatalistic in the league, despite their team's success in 2009.
There is an incredible aura around the Bengals that the trap door is just one step ahead and this franchise isn't aware or nimble enough to avoid it. The team is 9-4, but it's hard to determine if its muscles are fabricated, like a championship contending boxer who fattened his résumé against eggshell-punching palookas.
They're definitely one of the better teams in the NFL, but among that group of better teams -- Indianapolis, San Diego, Minnesota, Arizona, New Orleans, Green Bay, Philadelphia -- they might not be quite good enough.
The Minnesota Vikings were a litmus test of sorts for the Bengals. This was a team that would slug Cincinnati hard and make no bones about trying to win Sunday's game inside their frostbite-proof dome with nothing but sheer force and will, the traits the Bengals have established in rebuilding some semblance of credibility.
"Today was a big one," said Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson, who was a bright spot as he churned out 96 yards rushing. "We've got a lot of young guys and I don't think many guys have had that playoff run, opportunity or been in that playoff situation. [This] was a playoff game. A tough opponent. I'm sure as a team we'll learn from this one."
Benson went to a Super Bowl as a member of the Chicago Bears and, at that point, he was one of those young players who wasn't quite as ready as his teammates. Having seen things through that prism, there doesn't seem to be any doubt from Benson about his team's worthiness. However, there are questions about its fitness to survive against teams with more offensive weapons and more defensive playmakers.
Physically, Cincinnati can roll with any team in the league. Vikings players weren't moving off the field after their victory with too much bounce, having endured 60 minutes of thumping that makes good football, good football.
Cincinnati, though, plays a style of football -- plays, not played -- that works only for so long and not against the type of opponents it could face in the playoffs.
Defensively, the Bengals are fine. The 30 points Minnesota scored can be dismissed because the Vikings eventually wore down a unit that rarely was put in good position to enforce itself throughout four quarters of fury. Cincinnati entered the game allowing less than 16 points a game, so, to that degree, the Vikings' success was an aberration.
Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph proved they are legit and the front seven is nasty. Quarterback Brett Favre was limited to a manageable 192 yards and running back Adrian Peterson toughed out 97 yards.
Cincinnati's offense, though, is like watching a lumberjack trying to saw down a Redwood with a butter knife. The Vikings' defense is good, really good, but the Bengals -- other than Benson running like a man on a mission -- made things relatively easy for them by taking no downfield shots in the passing game and showing minimal creativity.
It's throwback football for sure, which is fine. But when you fall behind by 16 points against a really good team, throwforward football might come in handy.
"I am not sure if we were really focused on getting the passing game going today," said receiver Chad Ochocinco, whose 27 total receiving yards -- 15 on a swing pass that he scored the team's only touchdown on -- led the team. "What we wanted to do was establish the run like we have been doing all year. We wanted to pass as needed, you know, when it's there."
While the Vikings also wanted to establish the running game, they also threw intermediate and deep balls that kept the Bengals' defense honest and moved the chains. Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, who doesn't look like he trusts his offensive line or his receivers much, completed 15 of 25 passes for 94 yards. That's an average of 3.1 yards per attempt, including one sack. Cincinnati averaged five yards per rushing play.
Palmer is averaging just over 200 yards passing a game. Although his return from injuries in 2008 have stabilized the offense, he doesn't look like the same guy running the same offense that used to be one of the more feared passing attacks in the NFL. He's getting rid of the ball quickly because there are protection issues, as his more frequent forays out of the pocket to throw prove.
On another front, receivers aren't routinely dispatched deep. Part of the reason for that is, with Chris Henry out for the season, all the Bengals have are possession-type receivers. Laveranues Coles wasn't even thrown to against the Vikings -- and he is a starter. The lack of big-play ability looks potentially crippling for a team hoping to make a deep playoff run.
You can manicure a yard by picking one blade of grass at a time but there are only 60 minutes in a football game.
Again, this isn't just one game. A trend is in full bloom. Cincinnati scored 23 points vs. Detroit, which gave up 48 points in a loss to Baltimore on Sunday. Those 23 points the Bengals scored against the Lions came in the only game they reached the 20-point mark in what is now a six-game stretch. The defense was good enough to allow the Bengals to win three of four games prior to facing the Lions in which they averaged 17 points in four games.
"We're going to fix things," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
They'd better. Cincinnati travels to San Diego next week for its second dose of playoff football before the postseason. The Bengals haven't clinched a playoff berth, mind you, so the "Who Dey" faithful will remain on edge.
The Chiefs and Jets follow the game with the Chargers and by then, the Ravens might have gained another game on Cincinnati to make things interesting. By sweeping the AFC North -- something that in previous years would have seemed monumental, but with the fall of Pittsburgh, the inconsistency of Baltimore and the sad state of things in Cleveland seems ordinary -- the Bengals hold tiebreaker advantages. They will make the playoffs.
Cincinnati didn't help convert the non-believers with this performance against the Vikings. Still, the Bengals are mature and believe they can bounce back. That's a start. Next, they have to stop jumping off sides and figuring out that explosive plays are measured in 20-yard increments.
Before the game, an assistant coach for the Vikings told me that Arizona's domination of them in a 30-17 loss last week was a wake-up call; that there are teams that will hurt your pride if you don't play near perfect football every week. The Vikings regrouped and doled out a can of you know what upside the Bengals' hind parts.
Cincinnati's players said they'll learn from the you-know-what kicking Minnesota administered.
We'll find out soon enough if they have. If so, we'll then see if they have what it takes to actually make this a postseason feel-good story.