The naysayers can say what they want — and the naysayers say plenty about these Cincinnati Bengals.
Examples: Andy Dalton will return to pumpkin status come postseason. ... The Bengals haven't won a playoff game in a quarter century. ... Don't be fooled by Cincinnati's hot start. ... The Bengals can't win the big one.
Sunday brings a big one. Seattle visits the Queen City for a 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium.
That's the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. And if not for a curious goal-line Super Bowl play call and embarrassing interception, it would be the two-time defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks.
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Pete Carroll's team is just 2-2 this season, but don't be fooled. Seattle is second in the NFL in total defense, allowing 278.8 yards per game. (Denver is first at 275.5.) The Seahawks are tied for third in fewest points allowed per game at 17.8.
Since star safety Kam Chancellor ended his holdout and returned to the lineup, Seattle has forced 18 punts in 20 possessions. They are the Seahawks again.
Meanwhile, through the season's first month, the Bengals have made a strong case for being on the short list of the NFL's best. They are 4-0 for the first time since 2005.
They opened by beating Oakland the way you're supposed to beat Oakland. They defeated San Diego at home, beat Baltimore in a heart-stopping, back-and-forth game on the road, then knocked off Kansas City last Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Chargers, Ravens and Chiefs, respectively, were teams experts thought capable of making the playoffs.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been playing, in the words of wide receiver A.J. Green, "out of his mind." Only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (125.9) has a better pass efficiency rating than Dalton's 123.0. Dalton has thrown nine touchdown passes compared to one interception. He's bounced back from his minimal mistakes.
Two weeks back at Baltimore, "Bad Andy" reared its ugly head when Dalton was stripped while being sacked and Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley scooped up the loose ball and raced 41 yards for a touchdown and a 17-14 home team lead. No matter. Cincinnati's next snap from scrimmage, Dalton fired a 30-yard strike that Green turned into an 80-yard touchdown.
When Baltimore pushed back in front 24-21, Dalton directed an 80-yard march in five pass plays to put the Bengals on top again, this time for good, 28-24.
Ah, say the naysayers, both Dalton and his Bengals have a history of laying eggs against better competition. Just last season, Cincinnati took a 3-0 record to New England and were humiliated 43-17 by the Patriots. New England led 20-3 at the half, gained 505 yards on the night and forced three Cincinnati turnovers.
Yet this year feels different. Health is a reason. On offense, Dalton has his full complement of weapons. Wide receiver Marvin Jones, who missed all of last season, is back to full speed. So is tight end Tyler Eifert, who suffered an elbow injury in last year's opener and never returned. Eifert is Dalton's second-leading receiver with 16 catches through the first four games. Jones has 10.
On defense, tackle Geno Atkins is finally back to being Geno Atkins after suffering a torn ACL two years back. Atkins has three sacks already, putting him just a half-sack behind teammate Carlos Dunlap, the defensive end who is playing at a Pro Bowl level.
The Bengals gave up too many yards last Sunday to Kansas City, but they kept the Chiefs out of the end zone. Kansas City kicked a franchise-record seven field goals. And Seattle's offensive line has struggled. Were it not for quarterback Russell Wilson's improvisation skills, the Seahawks would be worse than their No. 19 ranking for total offense.
Still, it's Seattle. It's the Legion of Boom defense. It's Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner and Pete Carroll. It's a big game. The Bengals haven't been 5-0 since 1988. Says here they'll be 5-0 come Sunday night.