As I watched Thursday night's game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles, I kept thinking to myself, are the Bengals really a legitimate playoff team? And as Cincy struggled to gain control of the game (before Philly handed it to them with a bevy of turnovers), I came to a troubling realization: If the NFL added teams to the playoffs -- a topic Commissioner Roger Goodell broached this week -- these Bengals easily would qualify. But based on the way they played against a lackluster Eagles team, the Bengals looked nothing like a playoff team. And that's my issue.
Expanding the amount of postseason teams might look good on paper, but look bad on the field.
Each time I watch the Bengals play, they appear to be a good team. That is all. Just a good team and never a great team. They are capable of playing well, depending on the competition, but also capable of playing down to inferior foes and losing games they shouldn't.
They do have some strong areas on the team, including a stellar wide receiver in A.J. Green, a fine group of young defensive linemen (headlined by disruptive DT Geno Atkins) and an effective defense overall. But mostly, the Bengals have good players, starting with quarterback Andy Dalton, who looks more good than great. Therefore, they have more moments of good play than great play. It's hard for me to believe they would be a solid playoff team, as presently constructed. If they do quality for this season's playoffs, they'll look like a one-and-done come January. If the playoffs were expanded, they could already be a sure bet.
Now, I am all for more football -- especially great football, come playoff time. And my first reaction to Goodell's announcement was positive. After all, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2011 New York Giants both barely made the playoffs ... before lifting the Lombardi Trophy. At first blush, that would give credence to potential expansion.
But after watching the Bengals last night, doubt crept into my head. This isn't entirely on Cincy. I just don't believe there are definitely more than six legitimate playoff teams in each conference.
In the current system, there always seems to be a team that makes the playoffs because of an easy schedule. While this year's Indianapolis Colts are a fine story and certainly outplaying expectations, there's no question they've benefitted from a favorable slate. Indy has beaten two teams with winning records (the 7-6 Minnesota Vikings and 9-4 Green Bay Packers) and plays in a division with two of the worst teams in 2012: the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Again, I'm not trying to take anything away from the Colts; they don't control who they play, they only control how they play. And if they beat the Houston Texans twice in the next three weeks, they can win the AFC South, removing any doubt that they are a legitimate playoff team.
This isn't an argument against the Colts, as they deserve the benefits of their hard work and effort this season. My concern lies in the additional teams that would join the playoff pool with expansion to 14 or 16 teams, as Goodell mentioned. I'm afraid about how much this could water down the postseason. Who would fill the No. 7 (and possibly No. 8) slot in each conference? Would those teams be good enough to win more than one game? Would they be good enough to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl? My sense is no. Teams that cannot easily qualify normally have problems at quarterback, and how can any team make a playoff run without solid quarterback play? If the season ended today, the No. 8 seed in the AFC would be ... the New York Jets. You get my point.
Now, let's return to the issue that started this column: considering the Bengals as a legitimate playoff team. Watching them struggle to beat the Eagles was painful. I understand it was a short week for the Bengals right after a tough loss to the Dallas Cowboys, but I expected better play. I expected a more controlled effort against a team just trying to end the season. Yet, a win is a win.
The Bengals have two tough games remaining on the schedule: at Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. Baltimore Ravens. Win both, and they're a playoff team -- a legitimate playoff team. Win both, and they prove that they belong. And at the end of the day, that's what we all want in the postseason: teams that belong.
Ten thoughts around the NFL
1) Can a team that fails to run the ball effectively, plays poor red-zone defense and allows 41 pass plays of over 20 yards be a legitimate Super Bowl contender? Well, the Atlanta Falcons are that team, and we'll get a hint this Sunday when they face the defending champion New York Giants. The Falcons are 3-2 their last five games, and even in those three wins, they have not looked impressive. They need to win at home on Sunday -- not to make the media believe in them, but to prove to themselves that they are back on track and ready for the playoffs. Depending on the outcome, this game will either give the Falcons great confidence or great doubt.
2) The Giants have some incredible talent on offense, and rookie running back David Wilson looks like one of the most naturally gifted players of the bunch. His speed, explosiveness and ability to make big plays makes Big Blue even harder to defend. But he won't be a complete player until he learns how to pass protect on a consistent basis. If Wilson can master this area, the G-Men can take their offense to another level.
3) The Baltimore Ravens made a change at offensive coordinator this week, replacing Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell. Even though Caldwell has never called plays in a game, I feel the Ravens will respond well and play their best game offensively against the Denver Broncos this week. Cameron was on borrowed time all season in Baltimore, as the Ravens' offense never took a step up to help carry the injury-riddled defense. Poor in-game adjustments and a lack of adaptability ultimately lead to Cameron's demise in Baltimore. Oftentimes, players will rally around this kind of change, which will benefit Caldwell. I expect Joe Flacco to play well.
4) The Seattle Seahawks have to win in Buffalo on Sunday to keep the pressure on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West race. Each time I look over Seattle's season, I keep coming back to the Packers game and the controversial call in the end zone that gave the Seahawks the Week 3 win. Green Bay would have a two-game lead right now in the NFC North, while San Francisco would have the West all but wrapped up. But that's not the case. The Seahawks have to make the most of their good fortune and win in Buffalo to set the stage for the final two weeks of the season.
5) Speaking of the 49ers, each time I watch Colin Kaepernick play, I keep thinking I am watching Randall Cunningham. Same size, same length, same rocket arm, same long delivery and same running skills. I believe Cunningham was more accurate with the football than Kaepernick, but the offenses in the NFL now favor a quarterback with running skills, and Kaepernick is a great runner.
6) The Chicago Bears started the season with an aging defense, which meant they would look good early and fade late as age and injuries began to take their toll. In a salary cap era, teams must have flexibility within the cap and youth on the roster, or they'll fade. The Bears were sitting pretty at 7-1 through Week 9. In the past five weeks, they've gone 1-4. Come December, when the games matter most, age takes over.
7) Robert Griffin III heads to Cleveland this week as a game-time decision, according to Mike Shanahan. If RG3 is not 100 percent, should he play? Can the Washington Redskins' offense, which relies on Griffin's foot quickness and speed, be effective if the star quarterback isn't close to fully healthy? My sense is no. And if RG3 cannot play his game in terms of movement, then the Browns' defense can adjust and make it hard for him to have any success. Clearly, backup Kirk Cousins isn't as good as Griffin, but Washington's other rookie quarterback might be the man to keep playoff hopes alive.
8) It might be time for the Oakland Raiders to play backup quarterback Terrelle Pryor and find out what he is capable of doing in the NFL. With more cap problems next year, and current starter Carson Palmer due to make $13 million, the Raiders need to figure out where they can cut some cost.
9) I am not sure how Dez Bryant is going to be able to catch a ball with a broken finger that needs surgery, but at least he will be playing at home, where the weather won't be frigid. This is the time of year in the NFL when hard-throwing quarterbacks can damage receivers' fingers, as the ball is heavy and hard. Bryant is being a team player in attempting to give it a go -- and I am sure he can catch the ball better with one hand than many can with two -- but this will be a huge challenge for him to overcome.
10) The Tennessee Titans play the New York Jets at home on Monday night. Since owner Bud Adams issued his ultimatum to the entire organization back in early November, the Titans have lost three of their last four games (to the Jaguars, Texans and Colts). This has been a disappointing year for Adams. He wanted Peyton Manning to become a member of his team in the offseason. That didn't happen and nothing has gone right all season. A loss at home to the Jets might send him over the edge, and instead of issuing ultimatums, he might issue pink slips. Can a team that is 4-9 have a must-win? Yes, and we will see it Monday night.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.