But more important than earning their place atop the AFC North is that the Bengals finally appear to have gotten over the stigma that they cannot win big games against quality opponents.
The win over the Packers marks the Bengals' second straight win over a tough opponent. In Week 2, the Bengals bested the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cincinnati, 20-10. Now, the Steelers are still winless and they had an 8-8 record last year—hardly the picture of a powerhouse—but the Bengals' ability to clear their hurdle of beating the Steelers in Cincinnati remained very real.
Since 2000, the Bengals had only defeated the Steelers twice at home—in 2001 and in 2009. Psychologically, Cincinnati's win in Week 2 carried more weight than the win-loss record of the opponent. The Bengals bested a Pittsburgh team known for its AFC North dominance and may have finally signaled a changing of the guard from the dynasty years of the Steelers to the division's western-most team in Cincinnati.
The Bengals have reached the playoffs in both years that Andy Dalton has been their starting quarterback. However, they've failed to advance in the postseason, losing to the Houston Texans both times. Critics pointed to their inability to notch wins against top-tier opponents as a sign that they weren't a true playoff team and it was hard to argue against that.
In 2011, the Bengals fell to the San Francisco 49ers, who ended with a 13-3 record; the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, who both went 12-4; the 10-6 Texans and the 8-8 Denver Broncos, who had a .500 record, but also won the AFC West that year.
In 2012, the Bengals were defeated by the Ravens, who finished 10-6 and eventually won the Super Bowl, and by the Denver Broncos, who ended at 13-3. Though they beat the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in Week 10, 31-13, the Giants finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
Again, the Bengals couldn't defeat the league's better teams, save the Ravens in Week 17, and Baltimore rested its starters in that game except for one series.
Now, with a home win over the Steelers followed by a hard-fought defeat of the perennial Super Bowl-favorite Packers, the Bengals look like a legitimate contender for the playoffs, not a wild-card pretender.
Most important is the way that the Bengals were able to bounce back from adversity against the Packers rather than letting it defeat them. The Bengals' offense turned the ball over on four straight possessions—a Dalton interception, a Dalton fumble, a BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumble and a Jacoby Jones fumble.
Eventually, they trailed by 16 points after Aaron Rodgers threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to James Jones in the third quarter. Dalton and his offense then rallied, answering with a 20-yard touchdown catch by A.J. Green and another Dalton scoring toss of 11 yards to Marvin Jones before the Bengals' defense sealed the win with a Terence Newman fumble recovery for a score.
One may say that truly great teams do not get themselves into situations like that, turning the ball over four times and having to dig themselves out of a major hole. However, it is also a sign of greatness that the Bengals did not allow their turnovers and struggles to define their performance for the rest of the game.
Aside from his turnovers, Dalton played a great game, completing 20 of 28 attempts for 235 yards and two touchdowns. His average yards per attempt were again high at 8.4 with his average-per-attempt for the season at 7.5, up from 6.9 yards last year. Dalton has completed 67 percent of his passes through three games, compared to 62.3 percent in 2012.
Cincinnati's defense also has much to do with the Bengals' turnaround. The win over the Packers marked the 17th straight game in which the Bengals did not allow a 300-yard passer.
Considering that 300-plus yard passing games are Rodgers' hallmark (he came into the week with 813 passing yards in his first two games), the feat that Cincinnati's defense accomplished on Sunday was not a small one. They also sacked Rodgers four times, indicating that the strong pass rush they fielded last year with 51 sacks isn't showing any signs of slowing.
The notion that the Bengals have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL paired with one of the most dangerous defenses has yet to be disproved.
Their roster depth is among the best in the league. Meanwhile, their ability to balance the run game with the pass is much improved now that Green-Ellis has been paired with fellow running back Giovani Bernard. The Bengals are a complete team, something most other teams in the league cannot boast of through three games.
Now, the Bengals can win games against the class of the NFL. The one big regular-season question mark hanging over their heads has been erased, as they've truly come into their own.
The next step for the Bengals is to get to, and win, a playoff game. Then, their path to legitimacy will be complete.