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Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Five midseason questions for the Bengals

By Coley Harvey

CINCINNATI -- OK, so technically the season's midpoint was last week for the Cincinnati Bengals, but considering how jam-packed the week was with the Thursday night game, and that most of the NFL is hitting the halfway mark this week, we decided to look at how the Bengals have progressed so far.

Be on the lookout for more midseason analysis throughout the day on all the ESPN NFL Nation blogs.

Cincinnati kicked off the second half of its season at Miami last Thursday with a 22-20 overtime loss that also saw it lose arguably its best defensive player. Without defensive tackle Geno Atkins out, Brandon Thompson becomes the next man up and takes on a role similar to what Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Wallace Gilberry took on when Leon Hall and Robert Geathers went down, respectively.

Geno Atkins
The loss of Geno Atkins will change the way offenses attack the Bengals the rest of the season.
The bevy of injuries that have hit the Bengals are among the first-half storylines that will spill over into the second half. How they handle those losses could have an affect on how the remainder of the season goes. The injuries aren't their only questions, though. As they continue the season with this weekend's game at Baltimore, here are a few others to keep in mind:

1. How possible is a 5-2 finish over the final seven games? This is a tough question to answer because, obviously, anything can and will happen down the stretch of any season. Through their first eight games, the Bengals were a play or two away from being 4-4 or even 7-1. Instead, they were 6-2 and still put the entire league on notice. Expectations were high in the preseason, and for the most part, the Bengals matched them with an impressive first half that included a four-game winning streak. Last week's loss to the Dolphins brought Cincinnati back down to earth a bit. But with games against the struggling Steelers, Ravens and Vikings coming up, the Bengals have opportunities to post another winning mark across the final seven games. With a bye the week before they travel to San Diego, they should be rested enough to handle that challenging cross-country trip. If they win that one, beat the Vikings, split the remaining two games against Steelers and Browns, and win both games against the Ravens, they will get to five wins. A sixth could come when they host the Colts on Dec. 8. A win in that game certainly could create momentum as the Bengals make their final playoff push. A 5-2 mark is a very strong possibility.

2. How might injuries frame the rest of the season? The absence of Atkins, Hall, Geathers, safety Taylor Mays and linebacker Rey Maualuga -- for possibly another two weeks -- could be the difference between wins or losses the rest of the way. Without Atkins on the defensive line, offensive lines likely will scrap their double-team plans and start going man-to-man when blocking the Bengals' four-man front. As a result, there could be more bodies to pick up blitzing defenders, meaning the Bengals might have to temper some of their blitzing plans. The lack of the Pro Bowl pass-rusher could lead to an adverse domino affect for the rest of the team.

3. How will Giovani Bernard be used in the second half? Calls have been coming all season for Bernard to be given more touches. They still are. Even though his snap counts have mostly stabilized since Week 2 -- he's had fewer than 30 in only three games since -- there still is a belief that the rookie running back needs to be an even bigger part of the offense. Should the Bengals listen to those calls? Probably not. As much as many of you may want Bernard to have 20 carries and 10 receptions a game, it's not going to happen. He averaged 9.0 rushes per game and 3.3 receptions after nine games. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis also at tailback and the slew of playmakers at receiver and tight end, there really is no need for Bernard, particularly in his first year, to carry the offense to that extreme. It'll be interesting to see if a rib injury suffered last week causes the Bengals to back off using Bernard as much.

4. Will A.J. Green lead the NFL in receiving? That would be a no. But it's not a firm no. After sneaking into the top 5 of the receiving charts after a couple of comparatively quiet games in the first half, Green currently ranks first in receiving with 862 yards. That's 39 more than the No. 2 receiver, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson. Detroit's Calvin Johnson ranks third with 821 yards. Keep in mind, Green has already played in nine games. Johnson, in addition to missing one game because of injury, is coming off his team's bye. So Johnson will have eight games in order to pass Green. Still, as long as he doesn't drop passes, the Bengals' big target will continue to rack up the yards as defenses start having to respect the rest of Cincinnati's pass-catching standouts like Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and Andrew Hawkins.

5. Why should we believe in Andy Dalton? We'll be answering this question in a host of ways down the stretch, but for now, Dalton deserves a measure of belief because he hasn't been all bad this season. Of course, he hasn't been all good, either. As long as he doesn't start making bad games like his 206-yard showing against Cleveland the norm, the Bengals have to believe he can help them rally through the final few games of the season. They have no choice. If they have any plans of going 5-2, 6-1 or even 4-3 in these seven games, they will need Dalton to play the best ball he has played his entire career. Then, they'll need him to be even better in the postseason as he tries to earn his first playoff win. Watch how he comes out against Baltimore this weekend. If he plays worthy of a QBR as low as last week's 13.5, then the belief has good reason to fade. It's all about consistency for him.