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Gridiron Gateway's Nate Latsch Tosses Five Questions To Ahead Of Sunday's Game

We go Behind Enemy Lines this week with the St. Louis Rams, Sunday's Bengals opponent at Paul Brown Stadium. In this first installment, Marc Hardin from answers five questions about the Bengals.

QUESTION: Do you think the Bengals’ two-game losing skid is just a hiccup as part of their otherwise strong season or is there now a legitimate cause for concern?

ANSWER: There's always legitimate cause for concern when you haven't won a postseason game in 25 years, and the Bengals will be fighting that bit of history in addition to every opponent, every season, until they win in the playoffs. With that kind of unfulfilled history, exacerbated by four straight first-round playoff exits, a two-game losing streak can portend more doom than reasonably expected. For the worst of the hand-wringers, it's a harbinger of another limp playoff exit to come.

For simplicity's sake, the Bengals' skid most likely is the result of facing tougher competition, which is playing on a roll. Arizona is the best team the Bengals have faced, and the host Cardinals needed overtime and a phantom 15-yard call just before the game-winning field goal to survive against a Bengals squad that has one win against a team with a winning record. The Cardinals are hot. They're 8-2 and have won four straight games. The Bengals lost 10-6 at home to Houston the previous week. The game could have gone either way. The 5-5 Texans have won three straight games, with Cincinnati right in the middle of their hot streak. The Bengals have played two teams with winning records (going 1-1), four teams with break-even records (3-1), and four teams with losing records (4-0).

Q: What’s been the key to Cincinnati winning so many close games this season?

A: A flair for the dramatic? The Bengals being the Bengals? It's a good question because I have no immediate explanation that's going to turn into a runaway sound byte. The Bengals are 4-2 in games decided by six points or fewer in part because they have been the better team in all six instances (with the exception of the Cardinals) while playing down to their competition in most every case, which can whittle a more pleasingly plump winning margin. The Bengals normally win by an average of eight points per game (266-186 in 10 games) so winning by six or fewer seems fairly normal.

Q: What has made the difference with quarterback Andy Dalton and has helped him elevate his play to another level?

A: I think in his fifth season Dalton is playing with more poise and greater confidence, augmented by a greater understanding of the playbook and what opposing defenses are trying to do to stop him. I also believe that he's benefiting from vastly improved leadership skills, which have tightened the ties that bind the offense. Plus, he's got a healthy group around him. Marvin Jones, the No. 2 wide receiver, missed all last season due to foot and ankle injuries. Starting tight end Tyler Eifert missed all but one quarter. Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green missed all or large parts of five games. Pass-catching running back Giovani Bernard missed nearly a month. Starting right tackle Andre Smith missed seven games. For the most part this season, they've all been healthy.

Consider too that Dalton has been seeing Dr. Tom House, the former Major League Baseball pitcher-turned quarterback guru the past two offseasons. Dalton said his mechanics are finer and more consistent from throw to throw since receiving his "House" calls. Dalton was booed during the offseason at a celebrity softball game two days before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati. It stung him, bringing about a more intense desire to prove his doubters wrong. What the naysayers conveniently forget is Dalton entered 2015 with a 40-23-1 career record in four years. The Bengals won 39 games from 1991-98, a span of eight years.

Q: What has helped make tight end Tyler Eifert so effective this year?

A: Quite simply, good health. He got into eight plays last season, catching three passes for 37 yards, before his expected breakout season was derailed by elbow and shoulder injuries. As a former first-round draft choice, he long has been known as a proto-typically-sized tight end (6-6, 250) with solid blocking skills and an overabundance of receiving skills (he's widely noted by coaches, scouts and analysts for his ability to time jumps and win contested balls). With no injury setbacks and an improved Andy Dalton, it's all showing up in Eifert's Year 3 season.

Q: The defense ranks in the middle of the pack in total yardage, passing yardage and rushing yardage but is fourth in the NFL in points allowed? What’s been the key to their success there?

A: Sounds like you haven't seen all the foot-shootin' parties goin' on around these parts, pardner. Seriously, that's a good observation, and I would say that the Bengals are winning with equal parts talent, luck, offensive scheme and a bend-but-don't-break defense that has allowed enough garbage-time yards to make some of the totals look ordinary. Also, the Bengals have been strong on defense in the red zone. They entered this week with the NFL’s third-ranked defensive touchdown percentage (44.0), surrendering 11 TDs on 25 drives inside the 20. For four straight weeks the Bengals have been ranked second or third in red zone defensive TD percentage.

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