The Case for the Bengals
First, offense. QB Andy Dalton has a respectable 4.8 AYPA, currently 22nd in the league, and his pass SR is 47%, currently 13th in the league. Dalton has a slightly better than average interception rate at 2.6%. The team as a whole protects the ball and is tied for the league’s best fumble rate at 0.3%. As a rookie, it’s typical to expect Dalton’s performance to improve as the season goes on.
WR A.J. Green is a budding rookie play-maker. He ranks 9th in EPA and 10th in WPA among all receivers this season. He 12th in total yards with 599 and has found the endzone 5 times in 8 games.
Their running game is struggling a little, and is 27th in the league with a 38% run SR. But in fairness, that’s slightly better than their AFC North brethren and co-AFC leader, the Ravens. Overall, the offense is right at or below league average with neutral, near-zero EPA and WPA numbers.
The defense is a different story. They are 6th in the league in EPA and 2nd in WPA. They’re ranked 7th with only 5.8 YPA allowed and 6th with a 60% run SR. The defense is winning games, even as their defensive interception rate is only 1.1% (3rd lowest), which can be typically expected to regress upward toward the league average.
The Case against the Bengals
There are two big reasons why CIN wouldn’t be considered a top-tier team right now—1) over-performance, mostly on defense, and 2) strength of schedule.
CIN is really winning on the back of its defense. The team is 2 wins better than a .500 record, and big chunk of that is thanks to -1.21 wins worth of defensive WPA. That’s exceptionally large. (Keep in mind that it only takes 0.50 of net WPA to win a game because each game starts at .50/.50.)
But like an Italian bank, that defensive WPA is drastically over-leveraged. The wins have come thanks to some very fortunate and timely play. Call it clutch if you want, or call it luck, but whatever you call it it’s not easily repeatable. Their EPA suggests their long-run WPA should be much lower. Remember that EPA does not account for time and score during a game, but WPA does. According to the analysis I did recently on ‘expected WPA’, CIN should be expected to have about -0.24 defensive WPA. That suggests their team record should be closer to .500.
Although their defensive interception rate has been low, they’ve been very fortunate with fumbles, resulting in 9 fumble-takeaways, good for 2nd best in the league.
The offense is about average in both EPA and WPA, so their WPA can be accepted more at face value. Its claim to fame at the moment is their low fumble rate, but that’s almost certain to increase. They’ve lost only 1 out of their 6, which is also bound to regress upward.
The second big reason for CIN’s 6-2 record is its imbalanced schedule-easy in the first half of the season and much tougher in the second half. Their opponent GWP (Generic Win Probability) is currently last in the league by far at 0.42. To date, they’ve faced CLE, DEN, SF, BUF, JAX, IND, SEA, and TEN—most of which are not known for their offensive prowess. (Their two losses were to SF and DEN.) Ahead on their schedule are PIT twice, BAL twice, CLE, HOU, STL, and ARI. That’s 5 games against top teams and 3 against weaker opponents. Overall, their forthcoming opponent GWP is 0.55, which will be one of the toughest in the entire league.
The Bottom Line
The efficiency model currently has them ranked 24th overall, 23rd on offense and 24th on defense with a 0.40 GWP. With the help of nfl-forecast.com, I expect their most likely record for the remainder of the season to be 3-5, finishing 9-7. But because they already have so many wins-in-hand, they are a serious playoff contender, with the 8th best probability of making the playoffs at about 40%. Depending on how the ball bounces they could reasonably finish with anywhere from 7 to 11 wins.
One of CIN’s biggest problems is BAL, and not just because they play each other twice. Although no juggernaut in its own right with a 0.59 GWP, BAL's remaining strength of schedule is one of the easiest at 0.38 GWP (and is 0.37 not counting the games against CIN). CIN’s final game of the year is at BAL, which could either be a very meaningful struggle or an easy win, depending on the Ravens’ playoff situation and if they rest their starters.
CIN has a solid rookie QB and genuine star rookie WR. They’ve got a defense that looks much better than it probably is. They’ve had the softest schedule in the league until now, and it’s about to get much tougher, while their primary divisional opponent has a much easier slate of upcoming opponents. CIN might be for real as a wildcard contender because of their good fortune so far, but they're not a top tier team in the conference. At least not this season.