After five games, five reasons the 4-1 Cincinnati Bengals are for real (really):
Defense: This is the most important and maybe the most overlooked difference between these Bengals and past Bungles.
Past Bungles defenses couldn't find the off switch. This Bengals defense can. It ranks ninth in the NFL in points allowed, 12th in run defense 17th in total defense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has earned praise and empathy for the way he coached his unit in Sunday's 17-14 win at Baltimore, three days after unexpectedly losing his wife, Vikki. (The funeral for Vikki Zimmer, who reportedly died of natural causes, was Tuesday morning.)
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But Zimmer deserves accolades for reshaping a defense that by the end of last year was making noticeable strides. The addition of aggressive rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, and the return to health of Antwan Odom have advanced the unit to formidable status.
You have a formidable defense, you have a chance to win.
Carson Palmer: For all the buzz over Brett Favre and Drew Brees and even Peyton Manning, no NFL quarterback has been more clutch during the first five weeks.
With 6:21 left against Denver, Palmer drove the Bengals 91 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown and a 7-6 lead with 38 seconds remaining. Alas, the Broncos pulled the game out on a fluke tip-drill of an 87-yard pass play, but for Palmer a trend was established.
With 5:14 left against Pittsburgh, Palmer drove the Bengals 71 yards in 16 plays for a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining and a 23-20 win.
With 6:34 left against Cleveland, Palmer drove the Bengals 70 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown with 1:55 left that ultimately sent the game into overtime. Cincinnati won it there.
With 2:15 left against Baltimore, Palmer drove the Bengals 80 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown with 22 seconds left and a 17-14 win.
It doesn't get much better than that.
Cedric Benson: The Chicago Bears' castoff leads the NFL with 487 yards rushing and is second in yards per game at 97.4.
(New Orleans' Mike Bell leads the way with 114.5 but has played only two games.)
Those, including yours truly, critical of owner/general manager Mike Brown for trying to save too many troubled souls must eat crow on Benson. The fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft has performed, and then some.
The Ravens had 39 straight games of holding opposing running backs to less than 100 yards until the Bengals arrived Sunday. Then Benson rushed for 120 yards on 27 carries.
Kudos to Benson's blockers up front, as well.
Ochocinco: Chad, or Esteban as he now wants to be called, has dropped some balls. Ochocinco always drops some catchables. But overall, he's performed one of his better tricks — taking the time machine back to his previous self, the one who is more entertaining than grating, and who makes big plays.
The schedule: Cincinnati is already 3-0 inside the division, with wins over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland. The wins over the Ravens and the Browns were on the road.
Plus, the Bengals now have three straight games at home, starting with Sunday's game against the Houston Texans, followed by Chicago, a bye week, and then Baltimore.
In fact, Marvin Lewis' club doesn't leave "The Jungle" until a Nov. 15 rematch with the Steelers.
And right now, that has the makings of a tremendous game.