Why the Cincinnati Bengals Are a Good Value Bet to Win the AFC
Discerning the elite teams in the NFL, regardless of which conference they play in, has proven to be a near-impossible task in the 2021 season.
No team in the AFC nor the NFC has legitimately broken away from the pack and proven themselves as the gold standard through 12 weeks of the campaign. The widespread parity in the league has made for one of the most fascinating seasons of recent memory but may well be a source of frustration for bettors looking for a contender in which they can truly believe.
Perhaps nowhere is that parity more evident than in the AFC North, where all four teams in the division have a record of at least .500.
Though the division appears equal, a divide is starting to emerge. The 5-5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers look destined to be cut adrift, while the Cincinnati Bengals – fresh off a 41-10 rout of the Steelers – appear ready to contend to go deep into the postseason.
The Bengals have themselves given people plenty of reasons for doubt, most recently during a two-game losing streak that featured a shootout defeat to the New York Jets and a blowout loss at the hands of their division rivals the Cleveland Browns.
However, now at 7-4 after following up a win over the Las Vegas Raiders with a dominant performance against Pittsburgh, the Bengals are back in the thick of the race for the AFC North title.
And, priced at +1200 by DraftKings Sportsbook to win the AFC, they have shown enough on both sides of the ball to be viewed as a value bet to not only emerge as the top team in their division but as the conference champion.
That may seem an outlandish statement on the surface given the recent form of the New England Patriots and the fact the Kansas City Chiefs reside in the conference, but a team nobody viewed as a Super Bowl contender going into the year now has an argument for being among the most complete in the AFC.
The Bengals did most of their damage against the Steelers on the ground, Joe Mixon rushing for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a hugely encouraging sign for an offense that has struggled for efficiency running the ball for much of the campaign, Cincinnati ranked 20th in rush average with 4.09 yards per carry.
Cincinnati's passing offense has been more reliable in Joe Burrow's second season in the NFL. The Bengals' 8.4 yards per attempt average is second in the NFL and just four teams have a higher explosive pass rate than the Bengals, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Their ability to produce explosive plays is highly reliant on Burrow's connection with former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase but, between Tee Higgins – who caught the Bengals' lone passing touchdown against Pittsburgh – Tyler Boyd and Mixon, they have the weapons to win via other avenues.
Former No. 1 pick Burrow delivering the goods is not too surprising, even after the knee injury that curtailed his rookie year, but more unexpected has been Cincinnati's play on defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL by Expected Points Added per play per rbsdm.com.
Over the course of the last two weeks, they are second in that same metric behind only the Patriots. Simply put, this is a defense that has performed well throughout the season and has dominated its opponents in recent victories.
That superiority figures to be tested in the next two games by the Justin Herbert-led Los Angeles Chargers attack and a San Francisco 49ers offense second in EPA per play over the course of their three-game winning streak.
Those two opponents also each possess a Bosa brother on the defensive line, potentially meaning a stern examination of Cincinnati's potentially fatal flaw.
The Bengals have clearly made strides in several areas this year, yet the offensive line remains a source of concern.
Though that is only slightly worse than average, Cincinnati's performance in Football Outsiders Adjusted Sack Rate which gives sacks and intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent tells the story of an offensive line still allowing its quarterback to take too much punishment.
Cincinnati ranks 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate, indicating that, if the Bengals are to emerge as one of the AFC's best down the stretch and go deep into the playoffs, improvements up front will need to be made.
Despite those protection issues, the Bengals have positioned themselves excellently for such a run. They move the ball well and consistently produce explosive pass plays with recent performances hinting at an uptick in production on the ground, while the Bengals also boast a defense among the league's most efficient.
That is a strong formula for playoff success and, though the likelihood is it will not translate to a conference title, the boxes the Bengals check and their price makes them an enticing team to bet in a year where almost anything seems possible.
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