Following a season in which the Cincinnati Bengals made a magical playoff run to the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1988, the team didn’t get off to the fast start many experts anticipated in 2022. The Bengals dropped their first two games and have struggled to get above .500 for most of the year so far. But after its worst loss of the season, a 32-13 road defeat to the Cleveland Browns in Week 8, Cincinnati got a bounce-back win over the rebuilding Carolina Panthers to go into its bye week with a 5-4 record.
That win places the Bengals in the exact same situation they faced a year ago. For the second consecutive season, the team will enter Week 11 coming off a bye and sitting just one game above .500. With last year’s memory still fresh, you can’t blame Bengals fans for thinking their team might do it again. But how realistic is it to expect Cincinnati to flip the switch in the second half of the season again, based on its body of work to this point?
To put it simply — not very. As we noted even before the second-half run last year, Cincinnati had already exceeded all expectations with its young core. Now, after that run, expectations have been much higher — and the Bengals have yet to live up to them. Another run is not impossible, of course, and our model still gives the Bengals a 47 percent chance to make the postseason. But a difficult set of games lies ahead, and the team’s inconsistency could make it tough to piece together the same hot streak that saved Cincinnati’s 2021 campaign.
The first, and likely most difficult, task for the Bengals is winning during their tough slate of upcoming games. According to the average pregame Elo ratings of their opponents,1 the Bengals’ schedule through Week 10 ranked fourth-easiest in the NFL. Now, in the second half, the team will have to go through the hardest remaining schedule in the league. That’s easily the largest swing, in terms of strength of schedule differential between halves of a season, for any team this season. (Entering the year, Cincinnati’s schedule ranked 10th-hardest overall.)
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Cincinnati is no stranger to this situation, as it faced a back-loaded schedule last season as well. And to their credit, the Bengals went 3-1 against eventual playoff teams during that stretch. However, that team was facing an easier remaining schedule, from a few different perspectives, than this year’s group is. For one thing, based on the current standings, six of Cincinnati’s last eight opponents hold a playoff spot. And if we look again using Elo, the 2021 Bengals’ schedule went from the 27th-most difficult through their bye in Week 10 to the sixth-toughest over the rest of the season.
That meant their differential between future and past schedule strength ranked fifth in the league at this stage of the season — merely a challenging road ahead, not the clear-cut toughest turnaround in football like in 2022.
Up to this point, the toughest opponents for Cincinnati have been their AFC North foes. The Bengals are winless in divisional games (0-3) after going 4-2 last year. But the division also contains a silver lining: Due to their rivals’ inconsistency, Cincinnati sits second in the North with a puncher’s chance at stealing the title from Baltimore. (They have an 11 percent division-win probability in our model, which is admittedly far behind the Ravens’ 85 percent — but hey, it’s not zero.) With a few divisional wins, they might have something.
And at first glance, the Bengals’ production on offense is comparable to what it was through Week 9 last year, which only furthers the notion that the unit will right the ship and make a second-half playoff push. The offense is posting averages in both passing and rushing yards per game that are nearly identical to those of 2021. But, like the rest of the AFC North, Cincinnati has its own issues with consistency, especially on offense. According to Football Outsiders, Cincinnati has the highest DVOA variance in the entire league this season. In other words, the Bengals have statistically been the least consistent team in the NFL on a week-to-week basis.
That variance is most evident when looking at the discrepancy in the team’s performances by game result. In Cincy’s five wins, the offense is averaging more than 32 points per game and 410 total yards per game. In losses, those averages dip all the way down below 17 points per game and just over 300 yards per game. While it’s fair to expect a team to perform worse in losses than in wins, Cincinnati’s 15.5-point average scoring gap between their wins and losses is the third-widest among all teams this season.
Similarly, quarterback Joe Burrow has had his share of inconsistent play this year as well. In wins, Burrow is averaging a 73.7 Total QBR, sixth-best in football. However, in losses, his QBR is just 36.9, which ranks 20th. And that’s not just a result of having to attempt tougher throws while trailing on the scoreboard. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, which can help us adjust for the difficulty of each pass attempt, Burrow leads the league with a plus-7.4 completion percentage over expected (CPOE) in Bengals wins this season. But he ranks just 18th (at minus-2.8) in losses.
Whenever you analyze Burrow’s play, the performance of his offensive line has to be considered as well — and even after being rebuilt during the offseason, the unit has again been underwhelming in pass protection. The Bengals’ O-line has allowed Burrow to be sacked 32 times (tied for third-most in the NFL) and has the second-lowest pass block win rate at just 47 percent. The unit is also giving Burrow even less time in the pocket, as the Bengals’ average is down from 2.4 seconds last year to 2.2 seconds. Although that may not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that just a half-second separated the league’s best (Philadelphia, 2.6 seconds) from worst (Pittsburgh, 2.1 seconds) in that metric a year ago. So not having that extra one-fifth of a second could be making all the difference.
Despite all the negatives, Cincinnati does have nearly a coin-flip’s chance to make it back to the postseason. The AFC just isn’t as strong this year as it was in previous years: Only five teams outside of the four division leaders have a winning record (the Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Cincinnati), and three reside in the AFC East — where one would assume that they will beat up on each other during the rest of the season. Against that backdrop, a team like the Bengals (whose plus-4.8 points-per-game differential actually ranks fifth-best in the league) might not be looking so bad.
But they still need to pile up wins. Since the NFL expanded each conference’s playoffs to seven teams in 2020, the worst seeds have averaged 9.4 wins per season.2 The Bengals need a 5-3 finish against the league’s hardest schedule to get to 10 wins — an extra degree of difficulty compared to last season. But if Cincy finds a way to do it, we could see the Bengals work their magic in the postseason again.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.