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Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Wednesday, October 26, 2016 at 11:20 AM

The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t had the start they hoped for in 2016, with a 3-4 record. But the season hasn’t gotten away from them. They’re only a game back of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North and the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger for anywhere from 4-6 weeks. Even allowing for Big Ben’s tendency to make it back from injuries sooner than expected, the whole situation places Cincinnati in a better position than they really deserve. And you can still get an 11-5 price on them simply to win the division title.

When you evaluate Cincinnati’s first seven games, it’s easy to create almost any storyline you want…

If you’re an optimist, you point out that their four losses have been to the Steelers (with Roethlisberger), Cowboys, Patriots and Broncos with only the Denver game being at home. Their victories against the softer parts of their schedule have all been ATS covers. And there is no game the rest of the way as tough as the ones they’ve lost thus far, at least based on how the season is presently shaping up.

If you’re a pessimist, you can make a different case. The Bengal victories have come against the Jets, Dolphins and Browns. And those losses, while against good teams, were ATS defeats as well, indicating a basic inability to meet Vegas expectations.

If you’re an optimist you point out that Andy Dalton is playing some good football—he’s third in the NFL in yards-per-attempt, trailing only Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. And that isn’t coming at the expense of efficiency—Dalton is in the top 10 among quarterbacks for both completion percentage and avoiding interceptions. The running game generates 4.4 yards-per-rush, ninth in the league. The defense is doing a respectable job at getting to the quarterback, led by Carlos Dunlap and his five sacks.

If you’re a pessimist you can make a different case. The offense might be moving the ball, but they’re 29th in converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, the reason they rank 23rd in points scored. Defensively, they might be rushing the passer, but watch out when the ball gets in the air—Cincinnati’s pass defense is 24th in pass-yardage per play. The run defense is even worse, ranking 26th.

So what way do you play it going forward, as we get set to watch the Bengals on national television Sunday morning when they play the Redskins in London (9:30 AM ET, Fox)? Is Cincinnati offering hidden value to capture a second straight AFC North title? Or is the early season struggle a sign that maybe Marvin Lewis’ time has run out and the exodus of assistant coaching talent over the past few years (Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden, Hue Jackson) has taken its toll?

I have to reserve my final judgment for clients, but I can tell you I’ll be keeping a close on the Bengals’ red-zone execution, particularly their ability to run-block in those situations. I’ll be watching the ability of the offense to get targets like Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd involved in the passing game to loosen the pressure on A.J. Green. And I’ll be watching the pass coverage to see if they can hold opposing quarterbacks in check.  

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