Still, the subtle disparagement began in earnest this week, as the Bengals prepared to play the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks in a game Sunday that could finally hurtle Cincinnati into serious Super Bowl consideration. But the pages of the calendar are already being flipped until they reach deep into the winter and the Bengals' soft underbelly.
Let's see them do this in January.
Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth is in his 10th season in Cincinnati and has seen plenty of disarray and dysfunction, players making a scene, demanding trades and a former franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, who was determined to never play for the Bengals again. But Whitworth's also been a part of a team that has been to the playoffs in the last four years -- albeit, only to lose their first playoff game each time -- so he can afford to shrug off the cynicism.
"It's funny that's considered a negative," Whitworth said in an interview this week. "That's a hell of a negative. Funny, people think we are good enough we'll be there in January. They must think we're a lot better than the majority of teams in the league. That's a good thing.
"We felt like in the last couple of years, we've had good seasons and then, for one reason or another, we haven't played as well in the first playoff game. Maybe some people have discredited us because of that. We're still winning a lot of football games in the NFL and achieving a lot. Hopefully, we'll have an opportunity to prove them wrong."
The Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 campaign, and their history is such that when Palmer was drafted by the team No. 1 overall in 2003, former Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason presented him with a helmet and said, "Welcome to our dysfunctional family."
That reputation, though, has been superseded in recent years by a slightly more benign one for playoff disappointment, which almost certainly explains how the Bengals can still be flying under the radar despite going to the playoffs in each of Dalton's first four seasons. Just after Dalton was drafted in 2011, when the offense got together informally in the offseason to work out, Whitworth hosted at his home five players who did not yet have their own places. He was impressed then by Dalton's humility, but also his quick grasp of the playbook. Dalton does not have the accolades or the high-wattage charisma of some of the other quarterbacks with whom he shares the AFC. Although when he was mic'd up by NFL Films last week, he displayed an endearing goofy confidence.
That is, undoubtedly, in part because of his greater experience, but also that he is now heading the most diverse offensive attack he has had, with greater depth and better protection. The Bengals are tied for seventh in the league in rushing offense, and are fifth in passing. They entered this week tied for the league lead in most plays of at least 20 yards (22), are fourth in scoring and are tied for the fewest sacks allowed. Even though Dalton is throwing more long balls, his completion percentage is 67.2 percent and he has nine touchdown passes -- a number he did not reach until Week 11 last year -- and one interception. Simply put, he is on pace for his best season ever.
"He continues to grow every year," Whitworth said. "Every year, he takes steps in the right direction. Last year, he played without his No. 1 guy (A.J. Green) for numerous] weeks. If you go back over offenses and the success of [Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, if you take away Rob] Gronkowski or [Demaryius Thomas, those quarterbacks wouldn't be having that much success, either. Andy was still able to put us in the playoffs. We are healthy and it is showing."
Whitworth is most pleased that in the Bengals' locker room, there is an expectation that the team will win. Nobody, he said, is getting too excited about the 4-0 start or beating his chest because the Bengals are one of just six undefeated teams remaining. The focus is on the things the Bengals could be doing better.
There is, though, a sense that this week's game represents a step up in class for the Bengals. By the end of a three-week span that began last week against the Chiefs, they will have faced the first-, second- and fourth-ranked scoring defenses (Seattle, Kansas City and Buffalo) from 2014.
The Seahawks, whose own recent struggles include a porous offensive line that has sent Russell Wilsonrunning for his life, remain something of a barometer. A victory over them Sunday would legitimize the Bengals as a playoff threat, despite a difficult schedule that still includes both games against the Steelers, plus road games against the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos. All, of course, are the types of opponents the Bengals would expect to face in January, and the types they would finally have to beat to once and for all no longer be "the Bungles."
Maybe even good enough for January.
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 5:
1) Before the Dallas Cowboys became a star-bedecked MASH unit, this game against the New England Patriots might have been viewed as a potential Super Bowl preview. Alas, it's hard not to notice how quickly Jerry Jones went from making Brandon Weeden sound like the second coming of Roger Staubach to calling him "limited." And quarterbacks with a career winning percentage of less than .250 (as Weeden has) are 1-10 all-time against Bill Belichick-coached teams. The truth is, Weeden has played well enough since Tony Romo got hurt for the Cowboys to win, but the defense has failed. Even with the return from suspension of pass rusher Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain to bolster it (and in Hardy's case, to harass Tom Brady), the Cowboys are at a significant disadvantage against a Patriots team that is first in the league in overall defense and scoring -- and for which Brady is playing at an extraordinarily high level. Since Brady became the starter in 2001, the Patriots are 11-3 coming off the bye week (although Brady missed the post-bye game in 2008, thanks to a torn ACL in the season opener).
2) Rarely is a matchup between two 2-2 teams so important, but the Steelers and Chargers are both looking up at undefeated teams atop their respective divisions.Mike Vick is charged with keeping the Steelers afloat while Ben Roethlisberger heals, but the reality is the signing this week of kicker Chris Boswell, who has never kicked in the league, might be more significant for a team that lost to the Ravens last week because Josh Scobee couldn't make a field goal. The Chargers' offensive line is beaten up and while Philip Rivers works well against the blitz, he will have to contend with a Steelers defense that already has 14 sacks, the fourth-most in the league.
3) One of the maddening things about the St. Louis Rams is you don't know what you'll get from week to week. On paper, a game between the team that is last in the league in total offense and the Packers in Green Bay seems laughable. But the Rams just beat the then-undefeated Cardinals in Arizona, and while they are allowing opposing quarterbacks a 75.7 percent completion rate (31st in the league), they have allowed only three passing touchdowns all season. They shouldn't have much trouble getting pressure on Aaron Rodgers with Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, but the real question is whether Todd Gurley can run so consistently that he can chew time off the clock to keep Rodgers on the bench. The Packers have had quite a bit of success against notable running backs this season -- holding Marshawn Lynch to no touchdowns and 41 yards, for example -- but Gurley had as many runs of at least 20 yards (four) in the second half of last week's game as any running back has had in all four games combined.