The NFL is a league based on the premise that any given Sunday, anything can happen. More then any other professional sport, there's supposed to be parity. But if you find yourself supporting a team with no hope (paging football fans in Cleveland, Detroit and Tampa Bay) then I have the team for you. The Cincinnati Bengals, the laughingstock of the league for the past few years, has become one of the most entertaining, productive and downright likable teams in recent memory.
Believe it or not, the Bengals are for real this year. They've beaten the Packers on the road, dismantled the Bears at home and taken out their division rivals, the Steelers and the Ravens, twice. They have one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL in Carson Palmer and one of the leading rushers in the league in Cedric Benson, and their defense is performing well. Their wins aren't always pretty but they tend to wear down opponents with a balanced, dynamic offense.
The most fun reason to root for the Bengals is Chad Ochocinco, one of the great eccentrics in NFL history. You gotta like a guy who tweaks a rule-bound league by legally changed his name from Johnson to the Spanish words for the numerals he wears (8,5). From his constant twittering to his ingenious touchdown celebrations (often involving creative interactions with fans), Ochocinco is a pioneer in the player-spectator relationship. Unlike other demonstrative wide receivers like Terrell Owens, Ochocinco is not a team wrecker. His shtick is playful, almost innocent, and if he stays successful it could change the level of entertainment fans expect from players.
The most likable thing about the Bengals is what they represent -- the feeling that hope springs eternal in the National Football League. This team went 5-10-1 last season. They added no significant free agents, had their number one draft pick get hurt early in the season and were picked by practically every analyst to be a mediocre-to-bad team. This is not some juggernaut in Dallas or New York that can afford to sign the most expensive free agents and coaches when the going gets tough. In order to be successful, the Bengals had to build from within. Their quarterback has been called every variation of soft over his injury-plagued career. Their running back is a castoff from the Bears who was deemed a pariah in the NFL until the Bengals gave him a second chance. Their number one receiver is more famous for his big mouth then his hands. Before this season they were better known for the number of felonies their players had amassed than pro bowl appearances. Yet they went into the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers house Sunday and stole another win.
Right now, the Bengals are setting a blueprint for the Lions and the Browns of the league who see no hope.
While it may be easy to cheer for the undefeated Saints or the high-powered offenses in Minnesota, Indianapolis and New England, the Bengals offer a change. A scrappy team without superstars in a city starved for a championship. For anyone depressed by football this fall, count to 85 and head for Cincy.