- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Power Rankings: Preseason: 24. This week: 4.
Where they stand: The Cincinnati Bengals are in great standing. One of the NFL’s biggest surprises, they are 6-2 and tied for first place in the AFC North, setting up Sunday's huge matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2). The Bengals were my dark horse going into the 2009 season. I felt they had a great chance to win about eight to 10 games this year. But they are exceeding even my expectations. A major reason for that is Cincinnati's 4-0 division record, which gives the team a great chance to win the division and possibly secure a home playoff game.
Disappointments: The Bengals have yet to get any production out of first-round pick Andre Smith. Cincinnati took the right tackle with the No. 6 overall draft pick, and it was a bad mix from the start. A lengthy contract dispute kept Smith away from the team during training camp, and once he signed his deal he broke a bone in his foot that has forced him to miss the first eight games. Smith is practicing, but the Bengals are doing the right thing in not rushing him back. It also helps that the offensive line is playing well without its first-round pick.
Surprises: Despite his strong finish to the 2008 season, no one expected Bengals tailback Cedric Benson to light up the league this year. Benson is second in the NFL in rushing with 837 yards. He has six touchdowns and four 100-yard games. After the Bengals picked Benson off the scrap heap last year, he turned out to be a perfect fit for the team. Quarterback Carson Palmer is keeping defenses honest, which allows Benson to run the ball with fewer people at the line of scrimmage. Barring injury, Benson has a great chance to make it to his first Pro Bowl.
Outlook: Palmer said in the summer that this was the best group of guys that he’s played with, and so far he’s proven to be correct. This Cincinnati team is even better than the group in 2005 that last made the playoffs. This year, the Bengals have a tough, physical defense to go with a balanced offense. So they can beat you in a variety of ways. The schedule gets much easier for Cincinnati in the second half, meaning the Bengals are here to stay. They are a tough matchup and the type of team no one wants to face in the postseason.