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Playoff Picture Hazy for Injury-Plagued Bengals

The Bengals may not be hitting the panic button just yet, but the sheer amount of significant injuries they’ve racked up—specifically to their defense—is alarming to say the least.

Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga
Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga

Oct 27, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (58) gets a ride off of the field after being injured in the second quarter agains the New York Jets at Paul Brown Stadium. Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

After earning playoff spots in each of the past two seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals entered their 2013 campaign with considerably high expectations. With a highly capable offense, one of the league’s fastest and most ferocious defenses, and a 6-3 record so far this year, Cincinnati’s lofty goals of a third-straight postseason trip and an AFC North title are well within reach. Their comfy two-game lead in the division after week nine also seems to suggest they are a near-lock for a 2013 playoff berth—if they can stay healthy, that is.

As we’ve seen time and time again, injuries can derail any strong team’s playoff aspirations. In fact, we don’t have to dig too far into NFL history to find a prime example—just look at the 2013 Atlanta Falcons. Coming off a deep NFC run and with the addition of Steven Jackson, the high-flying Falcons looked poised for another stellar season this year. However, things quickly turned sour after losing star receiver Julio Jones for the year and Jackson and Roddy White for several games. Now, the Falcons find themselves grounded at 2-6, with virtually no hope of seeing their season continue past week 17, and unfortunately for the Bengals, with the injuries piling up, a similar fate seems to be looming over their once bright 2013 season.

The Bengals may not be hitting the panic button just yet, but the sheer amount of significant injuries they’ve racked up—specifically to their defense—is alarming to say the least.

After losing cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles tendon) for the season early on, the Bengals have seen versatile safety Taylor Mays head to the Injured Reserve list (shoulder), starting linebacker Rey Maualuga go down for 3-4 weeks with a sprained MCL and starting defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffer a season-ending ACL tear in just the past two games. Let’s also not forget that Cincinnati was already missing defensive tackle Devon Still (elbow) and was dealing with nagging ailments to linebacker Michael Boley (hamstring) and defensive end Wallace Gilberry (groin) before this injury-riddled nightmare got even worse on Halloween night when Atkins went down.

So, while the Bengals scour the free agent pool for proven veteran players like a desperate fantasy owner this week, we can’t help but wonder: Have their postseason hopes been dashed? With the amount of roster gaps to fill, there’s no doubt their playoff chances have been impacted—especially after losing a player like Atkins, who had already posted six sacks this year. However with only seven games left, could these jungle cats lick their wounds and (literally) limp their way into the postseason?

Fortunately, despite the ever-growing pile of injured bodies, the Bengals also have a stockpile of offensive weapons that—although have misfired at times—have been on the mark for the majority of the year. Of course, we’re mostly referring to quarterback Andy Dalton and his favorite target A.J. Green, but with a solid two-headed ground game—led by rookie Giovanni Bernard—the Bengals might have enough firepower to ride this thing out. While the Bengals have relied heavily on their defense this year—which still currently ranks 11th against the pass and 10th against the run— they have managed to score at least 20 points in seven of their nine contest this year. With that type of production, they should be able to at least earn wins over the offensively-challenged teams on their upcoming schedule, like the Minnesota Vikings (week 16).

Even better news for the Bengals is that they are in one of the weakest divisions in football this year. With the Steelers and the Ravens scuffling at 2-6 and 3-5, respectively, the only real competition is the Cleveland Browns (4-5), who are currently on their third starting quarterback this year with Jason Campbell. It’s likely that a 9-7, or even 8-8 record, will win the AFC North this season and if the Bengals can notch a win or two against their division rivals, it should be enough to punch their postseason ticket.

Of course, the Ravens could jump back in the AFC North race with a win over Cincy and its patchwork defense this Sunday. Baltimore will be at home, where they are 2-1 this season, but considering the Ravens have scored fewer than 20 points in their last three games, they may not be that much of a threat.

So, although the Bengals are about as banged up as a team could be on defense, they appear to have a fairly good chance to reach the postseason once again. However, until they heal up, or find some capable replacements, we can probably expect a third-straight first-round exit.

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