UPDATE (Nov. 6, 7:39 a.m.): The Bengals added six points to their Elo rating on Thursday night, defeating the Cleveland Browns 31-10. Cincinnati’s current Elo rating, 1672, is the best in franchise history. The article below was written before Thursday night’s game.
According to our NFL Elo ratings — FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for determining an NFL team’s strength at any given moment1 — the best Cincinnati Bengals team ever was the 1981 edition, led by quarterback and league MVP Ken Anderson. Those Bengals notched a franchise-best Elo rating of 1666.4 after they beat the San Diego Chargers 27-7 in the AFC championship game on Jan. 10, 1982. But two weeks later, they lost the Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers, and while Cincinnati has had a handful of good moments since, things have never quite looked as bright for the franchise as they did that winter day 33 years ago.
At least not until tonight — potentially. Going into Thursday’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals have an Elo rating of 1666.3, a mere fraction of a point behind the high-water mark set by the 1981 team. Any win, no matter how small the margin, would make the 2015 Bengals the best team in franchise history.
At 7-0, they’ve already started the season better than any other Cincinnati squad. Formerly maligned quarterback Andy Dalton ranks fourth in the NFL in Total QBR. And he has the support of a solid defense that ranks third in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Ratings and 12th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. It’s a good recipe for a Super Bowl run, and Elo assigns the Bengals the NFL’s fourth-highest probability of winning it all this year (12 percent).
That 1981 Bengals club shared an important characteristic with this year’s team: great passing. If we scale every team’s per-play expected points added (EPA)2 such that the league has an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 each season, we can measure how effective a team’s offense and defense was in the passing and running games. This season, Cincinnati’s aerial attack leads the league with a 134 grade.3 The 1981 team ranked second in the NFL with a score of 125. The only Bengals squad with a better passing offense than either 1981 or 2015 was the 1988 version, whose 136 grade was fueled by Boomer Esiason’s own MVP campaign.
Here are the best Bengals teams ever:
An elite passing offense is where the similarities between the 1981 and 2015 Bengals end, though. While the 1981 squad also employed a solid rushing attack4 and a balanced defense that was essentially league-average against the run and the pass, the 2015 Bengals defend the pass well but aren’t particularly good at running the ball or defending against the run. Among historical Bengals squads, that profile more closely matches the strengths and weaknesses of the 1975 team, which was also good at passing and stopping the pass but lousy in the running game on both sides of the ball. (The 1975 Bengals ultimately lost in the divisional round of the playoffs.)
But if we’re looking for historical teams truly comparable to this year’s Bengals, we’ll have to leave Cincinnati. We can measure how similar any two team’s strengths and weaknesses are by using the differences in their EPA grades from above.5
Here are the teams most similar to the 2015 Bengals:
According to this method, the 2015 Bengals’ closest historical doppelgangers were the 1970 San Francisco 49ers, with John Brodie playing the role of Dalton alongside little rushing support and a defense that was much better at stopping the pass than the run. The next five teams on the list are perhaps more interesting, if only because they’re more recent; there are two Peyton Manning-era Colts squads, two Aaron Rodgers-helmed Packers teams and a Drew Brees-led Saints team. We’re only halfway through the season, but this list puts the Bengals among great offensive company. Yet, like the comparison with the 1975 Bengals, it also lumps them in with a bunch of teams that went to the playoffs with impressive records only to lose before reaching the Super Bowl.
Cincinnati has an 89 percent probability of beating the Browns tonight and claiming its mantle as the best Bengals squad ever. But their real work may be saved for the playoffs, in bucking the trend toward postseason disappointment for teams constructed out of similar parts.