One word sums up the first half of the Cincinnati Bengals' season unlike any other: injuries.
From the very first game this season, the Bengals' bumps and bruises have completely taken them out of their preseason game plan and altered the rhythm they were seeking offensively and defensively.
Key players such as Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green have been among the injured at some point this season -- some injured and reinjured. The syncopated manner in which the defense has been hit at linebacker caused defensive coordinator Paul Guenther last week to call this a "hell of a first year" on the job.
Midseason MVP: No player is more deserving of this than receiver Mohamed Sanu. Not only has he been a more than adequate fill-in for Green, who has missed parts of four games with a toe injury, he also has been the most versatile player on the offense. Before Green's return Sunday, Sanu accounted for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' offense in games the Pro Bowler missed. He had 460 yards of total offense in those games by catching, running and throwing the ball. He still has a perfect career passer rating after completing 50-yard and 18-yard passes. The latter throw was a touchdown pass completed to quarterback Andy Dalton. Sanu leads all Bengals pass-catchers with 39 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns.
Biggest disappointment: Aside from juggling their roster to account for the injuries, the Bengals' biggest disappointment has been veteran right offensive tackle Andre Smith. Lately, penalties have defined the sixth-year lineman's play. He's had holds and false starts in four of the past five games, including three holding calls that negated a pair of big first-down gains and a potential game-winning touchdown run in an overtime tie with the Panthers. The Bengals have learned from the league that at least one of those calls was incorrectly applied, but still, Smith hasn't had his best start. Pro Football Focus has him at a minus-4.6 grade through eight games, currently the second-worst grade of his career.
Best moment: The most memorable moment of the Bengals' first half was Sanu's 18-yard touchdown pass across the field to Dalton in a 33-7 Week 3 win against the Titans. It was a head-turning play that embodied the creativity coordinator Hue Jackson's offense possesses. But this isn't really about the most memorable moment. This is about the best. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill's 60-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left in Sunday's win against the Jaguars fits. The play featured a rookie in the most significant moment of his career, sprinting for a gain that extended the Bengals' lead and iced a crucial win. A case could also be made for Green's 77-yard touchdown catch late in the season-opening win at Baltimore.
Worst moment: For kicker Mike Nugent, no moment was as bad this season as his missed field goal as time expired in the overtime game against the Panthers. Had he made the 36-yard field goal, he wouldn't have fielded many of the threatening tweets that he retweeted after the game, and the Bengals would be 6-2. For the entire team, however, the worst moment was the 60 minutes it was playing inside Lucas Oil Stadium. During the 27-0 loss at Indianapolis, nothing went right for the Bengals. Their offense was timid and slammed around by the Colts' aggressive defense. Their own battered defense kept missing tackles and was exhausted because the offense couldn't stay on the field.
Key to the second half: Defense will be the difference-maker down the stretch. The offense will be fine. Smith will come around. The presence of Green, Bernard and, eventually, Eifert will help. Once the Bengals get their weapons back, the offense will hum. On the other side of the ball, the Bengals need to remain aggressive and get good pressure. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins must play a key role in that. After a slow start, he's finally starting to get back to his old self following last year's ACL surgery. He'd have been the biggest first-half disappointment had he continued without pass disruptions and sacks. Three straight road games, a game against the Broncos and three of the last four against division foes make the second half a challenge.