Head coach Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals are one game back in the AFC Wild Card race and a second straight trip to the playoffs, but the team’s fate may rest on three players.
The Bengals reached the 6-5 mark by beating down the doldrums of the NFL for five of their wins, with their Week 10 drubbing of the New York Giants as their sole victory against a team with a plus-.500 record.
Still, several of those teams have underperformed, like the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders. Washington may have righted the ship after dropping three straight games, but their 31st ranked pass defense has spoiled some amazing performances by rookie Robert Griffin III. Oakland was supposed to improve after quarterback Carson Palmer got a full training camp under his belt, but those results have been underwhelming.
The Bengals latest win was over Oakland, and the defensive line played an integral role with defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Michael Johnson leading the way.
Cincinnati sacked Palmer four times, allowed just one touchdown, and kept the Raiders top 10 passing game to 119 yards. Through 11 games, the Bengals have the eighth ranked pass defense in the league, only allowing 218.4 yards per game.
Atkins leads the team with nine sacks and three forced fumbles, while Johnson has eight sacks for a loss of 42 yards. Cincinnati will need both Atkins and Johnson to continue their stellar play, especially in the final two weeks of the season against Pittsburgh and a rematch with Baltimore, who blew them out 44-13 in Week One.
The offense has also gotten a boost from an unlikely source on the offensive line.
Rookie guard Trevor Robinson has been a huge help to the passing and running game since he took over for the injured Jeff Faine in the second half against Pittsburgh in Week 7.
After Cincinnati’s bye, Robinson started against Denver and New York, and against the Giants, quarterback Andy Dalton threw four touchdown passes.
The running game has also improved in the last two weeks with Robinson on the line. Running back BenJarvis Green-Ellis has two straight games with at least 100 yards rushing for the first time in his five-year career.
Faine and Robinson were supposed to be temporary plug-ins once Kyle Cook returned from an ankle injury.
It was announced Wednesday that Cook has been cleared to practice, but unless he can return to the field in next 21 days, the Bengals cannot use him for the rest of the season.
Whether Robinson has a permanent spot will now be decided by how well Cook has healed.