The Cincinnati Bengals are off to an impressive 9-3 start and have a great shot at the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC.
But are they an elite football team?
The Bengals will find out soon when they travel on back-to-back weeks to play a pair of division leaders in the Minnesota Vikings (10-2) and San Diego Chargers (9-3). Cincinnati should know a lot more about itself after these two games.
Until then, let's examine where the Bengals stand and how they match up with two of the NFL's best.
Cream of the crop?
The AFC North blog checked in with Scouts Inc., which breaks down tape of every game and provides in-depth analysis, and asked -- point blank -- if the Bengals are an elite team.
"No, I don't think they are," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said. "That's not to discredit what they've done. I think [coach] Marvin Lewis has done a tremendous job. He's transformed them into the most physical football team in a very physical division. But to me, they still have weaknesses."
Despite their stellar record, Williamson believes the Bengals have several holes that could be costly when they meet elite competition down the stretch. The two most glaring weaknesses Williamson points to are the Bengals' lack of depth at cornerback and their unwillingness to throw deep on offense.
Cincinnati has one of the top cornerback duos in the NFL in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. But the team has struggled to cover the slot and tight ends this year with its nickel cornerbacks and safeties.
Some of the top playoff contenders in the AFC have very good tight ends and/or the ability to play multiple receivers.
"I could see a team like San Diego, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts just come out and play exclusively three- and four-wide receiver sets against Cincinnati," Williamson said. "I think the Bengals would have a really hard time against those type of teams."
The lack of the deep ball in Cincinnati's offense has been somewhat of a mystery.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has one of the best arms in the league, but he hasn't used it much this season to create big plays. Palmer has no 300-yard games in 12 starts.
Cincinnati has morphed into a run-heavy team that pounds the ball with tailback Cedric Benson, who is 31 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season. Chad Ochocinco is leading the team with 62 receptions for 910 yards, but after that there is a big disparity in production from Cincinnati's receivers.
Williamson believes the strength of the Bengals' offensive line is run blocking, but their pass protection has limited the offense. Palmer has been sacked 22 times, including eight in the past three games.
"They don’t pass block all that well, and that is showing more and more as the season goes on," Williamson said. "They are not scoring a ton of points. They are getting what the run game gives them, and Ochocinco has been great. But they have, more or less, two guys that get the ball in that offense, and that’s Ochocinco and Benson."
Time for the big boys
Cincinnati's matchup Sunday against Vikings and the following week against the Chargers will be two of the most intriguing games during the final month of the season.
The Bengals started the year below the radar, and then became a surprise toward the middle of the season. Now that they’re threatening to become an upper-echelon team, these games come at an ideal time for Cincinnati to make a statement.
So far the Bengals' claim to fame has been sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6) and Baltimore Ravens (6-6) in four division games. But those wins don’t look nearly as impressive down the stretch as both AFC North rivals are .500 teams.
A road win over the Vikings would erase all doubts. But Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said this week that his team is not changing its approach for this big game.
"It hasn’t mattered in the previous weeks, I don’t know why it would matter this week," Lewis said. "We’re playing a very difficult division. It will be a difficult football game. It will be physical. We’re playing against a quarterback we have played against a couple times in the last few years, and we have a good opportunity that way.
"They’ve been playing very hot as of late, until last [week]. I’m sure they’ll be up and running on all cylinders, and we’ll have to play great football."
The Bengals will try to establish their ground game against one of the most physical teams in the NFL. But the Vikings will be without stud linebacker E.J. Henderson, who broke his leg Sunday in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
"A couple days ago, I would have said Minnesota would beat them handily, but the E.J. Henderson injury is massive," Williamson said. "He’s playing as well as any linebacker in the league."
On defense, the Bengals will try to stop the balanced attack of tailback Adrian Peterson and quarterback Brett Favre, an MVP candidate. Cincinnati is No. 4 in the NFL in total defense and first in the league in points allowed (187), and the team will need to bring its best defensively to pull the upset.
Also, the Dec. 20 game against the Chargers could determine which team gets the No. 2 seeding in the AFC and a first-round bye. Both division leaders have 9-3 records with four games remaining.
Deep playoff run?
Regardless of the outcome of the next two games, the Bengals will have an opportunity to prove themselves in the postseason. The last time Cincinnati made the playoffs in 2005, the team was one-and-done with a home loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.
This year's team looks poised to learn from that experience. The Bengals' core players are more experienced, and a potential first-round bye would definitely help.
"We have a lot of work to do," Lewis said of the stretch run. "It’s a good time to refocus and rededicate things at this point of the season."