But what the Bengals proved in Week 14 is that they're not elite, and that was the biggest statement they made during their trip to Minneapolis.
Maybe the San Diego Chargers (10-3) or Green Bay Packers (9-4) will eventually creep into the conversation. But the Bengals had a golden opportunity to accomplish that feat Sunday by beating the Vikings and failed miserably.
Penalties and poor execution contributed to Cincinnati's blowout defeat. The Vikings also played very well and exposed some of the Bengals' weaknesses.
Here is what we learned:
Cincinnati's offense is too one-dimensional
This has been pointed out several times recently in the AFC North blog. Cincinnati is too reliant on the running game this year and hasn't taken enough shots downfield.
Against Minnesota, the Bengals' longest completion was a 15-yard touchdown to receiver Chad Ochocinco. In 25 attempts, quarterback Carson Palmer threw for just 94 yards with three completions of 10 yards or more.
"I am not sure if we were really focused on getting the passing game going today," Ochocinco said. "I think what we wanted to do was establish the run like we have been doing all year. We wanted to pass, as needed."
To Cincinnati's credit, tailback Cedric Benson ran well with 96 yards on 16 carries. But when you're down by multiple scores in the second half, those yards on the ground become hollow.
Perhaps the biggest quandary of all is whether the Bengals won't throw deep or can’t? The former suggests there is a solution by merely adjusting the scheme and play-calling. The latter means it's a glaring weakness Cincinnati has to live with this year.
The answer to this question could determine how far the Bengals advance in the postseason.
Bengals can't overcome penalties
The Bengals are good, but certainly not good enough to overcome 11 penalties on the road against an elite opponent.
On and off, penalties have been an issue for Cincinnati. The difference is committing nine against the Detroit Lions (2-11) in Week 13 will result in a 10-point victory for the Bengals. But committing 11 penalties on the road against the Vikings turns out to be a 20-point loss.
Add them up and the Bengals have been penalized 20 times in the past two weeks. Many have been mental errors, such as jumping offside or a personal foul for a late hit. At one point the Bengals had 12 men in the huddle on offense, which should be unacceptable for a first-place team this late in the season.
"It doesn’t help us and it's something we have to correct," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think the noise has a little bit to do with it, but we have played in noisy places before."
Pass protection is shaky
Although one sack on the stat sheet doesn't tell the full story, Cincinnati continues to struggle with pass protection.
Entering this week, Cincinnati allowed eight sacks in the past three games. Against Minnesota, Palmer took five hits in the pocket but avoided sacks by getting rid of the football quickly and scrambling (four attempts, 10 yards).
These issues will all be highlighted as the Bengals look forward to their next game against the Chargers on Dec. 20. This is another huge meeting between two division leaders, and the winner will secure the head-to-head tiebreaker in a race for the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
San Diego has similar personnel to Minnesota, which could give the Bengals trouble, particularly offensively. The Vikings mixed the strong running game of Adrian Peterson (97 yards, two touchdowns) with decent quarterback play, and the Chargers potentially can do the same with tailbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles and the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers.
A telling sign will be if Cincinnati can shake off this loss and avoid a two-game losing streak late in the season.
"Today was a big learning lesson," Benson said. "We got a lot of young guys and not many guys that’s had a playoff run or an opportunity to be in a playoff situation. Today was [similar to] a playoff game. It was a tough opponent, and I’m sure we’ll learn from this one."