Morning Stripes: Bengals earning respect

Good Friday morning, everyone. We're now a day closer to one of the Cincinnati Bengals' biggest games of the season.

How big will Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers be? Consider this.

For starters, it'll be the last of three nationally televised games the Bengals have played this season. It comes on the road in one of the most intimidating environments in the NFL, and will be played in front of fans and players who would love nothing more than to spoil the division-leading Bengals' push for a No. 1 or 2 AFC playoff seed.

And yes, you read that last sentence correctly. It did say No. 1 or No. 2 playoff seed.

For the last two weeks or so, we've mostly been writing about how the Bengals are in a push for the second of those spots. The No. 1 seed seemed so far out of reach. The Denver Broncos, who hold that top spot, had been looking so good, so unbeatable. That changed Thursday night.

With Denver's loss at home to the Chargers, all of a sudden the possibility -- still a rather slim one -- of the Bengals moving into that No. 1 slot emerged. What would have to transpire in order for that to happen? A loss by the New England Patriots sometime in the next three weeks, one more Broncos loss across their last two games and Bengals wins in their final three. Easy enough, right?

Whether the Patriots and Broncos cooperate, Cincinnati has shown lately that it's one of the best teams in the league. That's what many analysts are beginning to think, at least.

Ahead of last week's game with the AFC South-leading Colts, all but one ESPN expert picked the Bengals to win. Since the actual 42-28 victory, pundits from other networks have joined the bandwagon, too. Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, who now works for NBC Sports, said on air last week after the win over Indianapolis that he was a believer in Cincinnati.

As we get going with the Friday Morning Stripes, we take a look at how the Bengals are beginning to earn respect:

  • Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Joe Reedy caught up with Dungy earlier this week and asked him a little more about what the Bengals have done to convince him they are for real.

  • Chris Collinsworth, a former Bengal, is another national pundit who has been wowed by the Bengals in recent weeks. Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson caught up with him this week. In that same post, Hobson writes about how much offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth enjoys blocking for Cincinnati's run game.

  • Going back quickly to last week's game, here's a link that had to be left on the cutting room floor of Thursday's Morning Stripes. It's from ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells. After NFL officiating head Dean Blandino came out earlier this week and said that referee Jeff Triplette's crew messed up a reviewed goal-line play that ended up awarding a touchdown to the Bengals' BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Colts weren't too amused. Specifically, outside linebacker Robert Mathis called the apology "too little, too late."

  • Moving quickly to the Steelers beat, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Ralph Paulk has this read on how leery the Steelers are of Cincinnati's increasingly balanced offense.