Bengals ignoring hype elsewhere, focused on keeping AFC throne: 'It goes through us right now'

The Cincinnati Bengals are the defending AFC champions, but they seem to have a chip on their collective shoulder that is only growing in size.

Their in-state rival Cleveland Browns were at least a brief topic on Tuesday. Yes, the same Browns who have powered hype trains in two of the last three offseasons -- but have only reached the playoffs in the season in which they weren't leading the sports-talk shows -- are the ones the Bengals had to discuss this week.

Defensive tackle D.J. Reader isn't buying their stock, not even after Cleveland acquired Deshaun Watson via blockbuster trade.

"I don't know," Reader said when asked if he was surprised the Browns were listed as the favorites to win the AFC North. "I watched a couple UFC fights this weekend. Vegas gets it wrong sometimes, too. They win most of the time, they're the house, but they get it wrong a lot of times too.

"Who cares? It seems like it goes through us right now, so until somebody comes and takes it from us, I'm gonna be confident in us."

Reader is right in this stance, of course. The Bengals have the newest Lamar Hunt Trophy in their case, available to be polished and admired whenever they so desire. They earned that hardware amid plenty of doubt. What's a little more doubt going to do to them?

Ah, if only it were that easy. Despite dethroning the Chiefs on their way to Super Bowl LVI, it seems as if plenty of folks don't expect the Bengals to prove it wasn't a fluke. They're instead directing their attention elsewhere -- to the Bills, the entire AFC West, the Colts, the Chiefs, and yes, the Browns -- instead of putting some respect on Cincinnati's name.

That's fine. The Bengals are still working on improving enough to close the remaining gap that would force the football world to give them the ultimate respect earned with a Super Bowl triumph.

"Our goal is to be the best line in the league and to lead the offense to be the best offense in the league," tackle Jonah Williams said. "That was our goal every year, but this year we know what the expectations are.

"We were able to make it to the Super Bowl last year and weren't able to finish. So this time we know we can make it to the Super Bowl, but we can do it a lot better and then we can win when we get there. So I think that's the ceiling and what we're trying to do."

Keep choosing your favorites, Vegas. The Bengals will be too busy working along the banks of the Ohio River to notice your picks -- even if a darling resides a mere 250 miles away.

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