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5 questions with SB Nation Bengals' site Cincy Jungle

Will an AFC North team win a playoff game this year? How good is Andy Dalton? We hash it all out with Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle.

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We met up Cincy Jungle's Scott Bantel to get some intel on the Bengals as the Steelers prepare to take on the AFC North leaders Friday. Check out what he has to say here, read Cincy Jungle for the best Bengals coverage around, and follow Cincy Jungle on Twitter @CincyJungle

1. Personally, I was happy seeing Mike Zimmer leave the AFC North. Do you feel his absence is behind the decline of a dominant Bengals' defense over the past few years?

Zimmer is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league and he was beloved in Cincinnati by his players and the fans alike and the loss of Zimmer certainly has to be considered as one reason why the defense has taken a step back. However, Paul Guenther was a direct disciple of Zimmer and was Zimmer (and Jay Gruden's) choice for defensive coordinator.

The bigger reason for the Bengals taking a step back on defense is injuries. I know all teams have injuries, but the Bengals' injuries have come to some of their biggest contributors and have hit their linebacking corps particularly hard. In fact, during the Bengals' Week 5 matchup with the Colts - arguably their worst game - the Bengals played all but five minutes without all three of their starting linebackers.

Vontaze Burfict is the leader of the defense and the Bengals' biggest playmaker and he will likely miss his eighth game of the season this Sunday and, of the five he has played in, he has left early in every one. Rey Maualuga has missed five games. Brandon Thompson - the Bengals best run-stuffing DT - has missed six games. Emmanuel Lamur, Leon Hall and Terrence Newman have all missed at least one game and on top of that, Geno Atkins is still not 100% from his 2013 ACL tear. However, Atkins is starting to look like himself and since Maualuga and Thompson returned three weeks ago, the Bengals haven't given up more than 75 yards on the ground. Once Burfict is back - probably next week - this defense should look like the top-10 defense we all thought it would be.

2. That said, the "declining" Bengals' defense has allowed 36 points in their last three games - that's one more than Pittsburgh surrendered in Week 13, and two more than Baltimore did (both teams lost). Have they hit their stride in the last three games?

Kind of. Part of the improvement has to do with Atkins playing better and the return of Maualuga and Thompson shoring up the middle of the defense. However, I would be remiss if I didn't chalk up some of the improvement to the opponents. The Saints are not the Saints we've come to know the past few years, the Texans were without Arian Foster and were starting a quarterback making only his second NFL start and the Buccaneers are, well, the Buccaneers. That being said, the defense is playing better the past few weeks, regardless of who their opponents were.

3. Where would this Bengals' offense be right now had Tyler Eifert not been injured in Week 1? Would they be as committed to the ground as they are?

With Hue Jackson as the offensive coordinator, the Bengals would still be committed to the run, but probably not to the extent they have been.

Think about this, Tyler Eifert was in the lineup for 11 minutes in 2014 - 3 drives - and in those 11 minutes, he had 3 catches for 37 yards and 2 first downs. When Eifert left the field with a gruesome elbow dislocation, he was the Bengals' leading receiver and was on a pace for about 15 catches and 100+ yards in Week 1. The Bengals (and their fans) were really excited to see how Eifert operated in Jackson's offense in 2014 because he was greatly under-utilized as a rookie in Jay Gruden's system. At 6'6", 250 pounds and with great hands, Eifert is the "new breed" of tight end and has the ability to make a team pay for focusing on A.J. Green. Eifert was placed on the IR designated for return list, but while he has been eligible to return the last three weeks, he has yet to even practice.

Unfortunately, there's a growing concern that Eifert may be done for the year; however, if he and Burfict do return down the stretch, it could have a huge impact on who wins this division.

4. Contracts and salary cap aside, which quarterback would you rather have starting in Week 1 of 2015, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco or Brian Hoyer?

Andy Dalton and it isn't even close for me. People may laugh, but hear me out. I like Brian Hoyer, but he hasn't shown me anything that would make me take him over Dalton - in fact, he's on the verge of being benched for Manziel.

As for Flacco, I do not think Flacco is a good quarterback. In his first three seasons, Flacco had 60 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. Dalton had 80 touchdowns and 49 interceptions. In six seasons (all in the pass-happy era) Flacco has never thrown for 4,000 yards or more than 25 touchdowns. In three seasons, Dalton has thrown for 4,000+ yards once and more than 25 touchdowns twice (27, 33). Flacco has had a completion percentage of less than 60 percent in three of his six seasons (his 4th, 5th and 6th years in the league), while Dalton has only one (rookie season). In 2013, the year after becoming a $20 million quarterback, Flacco threw for 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions; Dalton has never thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

People will say, "yeah but Flacco wins in the playoffs and has a Super Bowl." Valid point, and in the Ravens 2012 Super Bowl run, Flacco was outstanding in the playoffs, but he had nine playoff games under his belt before he made that run. In his first five playoff games, Flacco had six interceptions to just one touchdown; a completion percentage of 48.0%; a 5.5 YPA; an average QBR of roughly 25.1; an average passer rating of roughly 45.1; and he was averaging just 132 YPG. Those numbers are worse than Dalton's, but the difference is Flacco's team won some of those games. They won because he was propped up by a stellar defense, and while Cincinnati's defense has been good the last two years, they played terribly in the playoff games. Heck, in his first playoff start, Flacco won with a 39.1% completion percentage and 135 yards. In 2009, Flacco won a game in which he went 4/10 for 34 yards, a passer rating of 10 and a QBR of 16.1. In seven of Flacco's first nine playoff starts, he threw for under 200 yards - yet his team won three of those games.

5. How about running backs? Jeremy Hill, Justin Forsett or Isaiah Crowell?

I'm going to sound like a homer again, but I'm going with Hill hands down. Hill is the complete package, much like LeVeon Bell. He's a big back (6'1" 238 pounds) that has the power to run guys over and the elusiveness to make them miss. He also has good speed (especially for a big guy) and a good set of hands to go with it. I love Forsett, but at 5'8" 197 pounds (and 29 years old), he can't offer what Hill can.

Crowell, while young like Hill, doesn't have Hill's size (5'11" 225 pounds), nor does he have the hands that Hill has. So give me Hill.

6. The AFC North is a tight division with all three teams at least two games over .500. Is it a "great" division? Will the winner of the AFC North win a post-season game this year?

I wouldn't say a great division, but I would say the AFC North is a very good and deep division where there's not a single easy win. However, I still believe all four teams are at least a notch below the Patriots, Broncos, Packers, Seahawks and 49ers. As for winning in the post-season, my gut would say yes - heck, there may be two AFC North teams playing each other on wildcard weekend. I think it will ultimately depend on the matchup, but since at least one AFC North team will be playing at home, I will say yes.

7. True/False (with explanation): The winner of the Steelers at Bengals game in Week 14 will win the AFC North.

False. However, I do believe the winner of the AFC North will be either the Bengals or the Steelers. If the Bengals win on Sunday, I would definitely say ‘true" because a Steelers' loss would leave the Steelers 2.5 games back with just three to play. If the Steelers win, I believe the division will come down to the Week 17 rematch at Heinz Field.

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