The Cincinnati Bengals are starting to assert themselves in the AFC North, and that's scary.
They usually falter sometime during the season when they lose two or three consecutive games, but that isn't happening in Cincinnati. Instead, it has happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and now Baltimore, where the Ravens have lost two straight.
The Bengals (5-2) have a two game lead over the Ravens (3-4) and they appear to be getting better. The Ravens? They are mired in inconsistency and struggling.
"We still have a lot of games to go," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We just have to continue to look forward and continue to be confident. Like I said, it's a dog fight. It always is. We just have to try to win as many games as we can."
Right now, the Bengals are the top dogs. The Ravens are tied with Cleveland for second place, but the Browns (3-4) will fall as soon as they figure out they are the Browns. Pittsburgh (2-5) has resurfaced after beating the Ravens, 19-16, Sunday for their second straight win, but it will be hard making up three games on Cincinnati unless the Bengals start choking.
And right now, Cincinnati looks pretty good. They have as much talent at the skill positions as any team in the NFL with receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, tight ends Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
Defensively, Cincinnati is balanced up front with ends Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. It's a balanced team averaging 262.3 passing yards and 102.7 rushing yards per game and allowing an average of 236.4 passing and 97.9 rushing.
The X-factor is third year-quarterback Andy Dalton but even he is slowly getting better completing 164 of 249 passes for 1,924 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Bengals seemed to be jinxed for years and they always had a meltdown because of penalties, lack of discipline or sheer bone head plays.
They had that combination working Sunday against the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati still won, 27-24, in spite of themselves. That's why even head coach John Harbaugh keeps pointing to the Bengals, whom the Ravens still have to play twice.
"We're in the chase for the AFC North," Harbaugh said. "Cincinnati has the edge. They're the team that everybody is going to be trying to chase down now and we're going to try to go get them. We've got to do that'
Cincinnati has won three straight with two of those wins coming on the road. With each win comes more confidence and the less chance of them choking. With the Ravens, there aren't any signs they are getting better.
They were trying to manufacture some after the loss to Pittsburgh, but there wasn't anything to build on. They welcomed the upcoming bye week more than usual.
"Going through the bye week, coach is going to evaluate the game plan," fullback Vonta Leach said. "Players are going to evaluate themselves. We can get away from football for a couple of days. Then we can come back here ready to roll."
Before the past two games the Ravens could point to their run defense as a strong point, but not anymore, not after both the Green Bay Packers and Steelers ran through them. The offense is almost in disarray with no running game and a passing game that has only one receiver that could be a starter for most other NFL clubs.
It has gotten so bad that Harbaugh said Monday afternoon that the Ravens will pursue any options — cutting or trading — players to get better.
That's a coach getting desperate for wins. The Ravens do have a strength. They won't quit, but that doesn't guarantee victories.
That brings me back to the AFC North and the Bengals. The Browns, much like the Ravens, are still finding themselves. The Steelers found a strong running game Sunday and came out with an enthusiasm and aggressiveness that led to physical dominance over the Ravens. Despite having only two wins, they found something to build on.
But Cincinnati is on a roll and looking down at everyone one else in the division. The Bengals have a lot of weapons and a lot of talent, and if they keep winning they could become the Ravens of last season.
And that could be very, very scary.