By Mike Wilkening
Cold, Hard Football Facts Oddsmaking Analyst (@mikewilkening)

In a thin AFC with two strong contenders and little else in the way of imposing teams, the Cincinnati Bengals are one of 2013’s postseason sleepers.   

At the William Hill U.S. sports books in Nevada, the Bengals were 20-1 to win Super Bowl XLVIII as of Tuesday.

The Broncos (5-2), Seahawks (5-2), 49ers (7-1), Patriots (7-1), Saints (8-1) and Panthers (10-1) all had shorter odds, leaving Cincinnati as the seventh betting choice overall and the third choice in the AFC.

That’s a reasonable placement of the 8-4 Bengals in the Super Bowl pecking order. In fact, some may believe 20-1 is too short on Cincinnati, which hardly has a legacy of great postseason success. There’s no doubting the Broncos and Patriots are the top two AFC teams, the most-likely winners of the conference.

However, the Broncos and Patriots have their flaws. Neither has an especially stout defense. New England’s offense, though stronger recently, perhaps isn’t as formidable as in past campaigns.

The Bengals have their issues, too. But they may well be the only legitimate alternative to Denver or New England in the AFC title race.

The Bengals already have a head-to-head win against the Patriots this season, a 13-6 grinder in October. In the win — their first in five tries against New England in Marvin Lewis’ tenure as head coach — the Bengals sacked Tom Brady four times and limited the Patriots to just 248 yards.

Beating the Patriots in the fall is one thing. Beating a club of that caliber in January is another level of accomplishment entirely. Look, we don’t know if the Bengals are ready to take that sort of leap, or whether they will ever be ready. After all, they have bowed out in Round One of each of the last two postseasons. Worst of all, their quarterback, third-year pro Andy Dalton, hasn’t played well in either playoff loss.

Still, here the Bengals are again, poised to return to the playoffs for a third straight season. They hold a two-game lead on Baltimore in the AFC North with four games left to play, and they should be able to close the deal, especially three of their final four contests at Paul Brown Stadium.

Assuming they garner a playoff spot, the Bengals’ sheer talent may be their greatest asset come January.

Cincinnati’s depth of skill on offense shouldn’t be overlooked. Wideout A.J. Green is the unit’s blue-chip player, a receiver capable of carrying this offense. However, the Bengals have several other complementary pass catchers meriting respect, with wideouts Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu and tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham all capable of shining. Also, the Bengals are two-deep at running back, with the swift Giovani Bernard a real playmaking threat and the physical BenJarvus Green-Ellis playoff-tested.

For his part, Dalton has the ability to pass the Bengals to a playoff win — and to pass them right out of the postseason. He is notoriously streaky. With this many capable receivers at his disposal, and with the Bengals committed to the run, Dalton doesn’t have to carry this offense. He must be prudent, but he must connect on big plays when they’re available. And with Green, they will be.

Even if Dalton struggles, the Bengals might be able to survive and advance on the strength of their defense. Even with star defensive tackle Geno Atkins (knee) and key cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) out for the season, the Bengals’ defense remains stout. The Bengals are surrendering just 4.7 yards per play, third-best in the NFL. Weak side linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive Carlos Dunlap are impact players in the front seven, and the secondary is solid. 

In an important game for playoff positioning, the Bengals are six-point favorites Sunday vs. AFC South-leading Indianapolis. Neither the Colts (8-4) nor the Bengals are out of the competition for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. The Broncos (10-2) are currently the top seed, with the Patriots (9-3) holding the second spot.

A bye would be a nice change-of-pace for the Bengals, who have played in Round One in all four of their playoff appearances in Lewis’ tenure. Short of that, a home game would be welcome after consecutive trips to Houston to begin the playoffs. Beating Indianapolis on Sunday would be an important step toward at least securing that home game.

The Bengals still have work to do in the regular season to get to January. Nevertheless, this is a playoff-caliber team, one capable of winning the franchise’s first postseason game since the 1990 campaign.

There will be skepticism about the Bengals, which could add to their value. They have had a knack for exceeding expectations in recent years. Since 2011, they are 24-18-3 (.571) against the point spread.

They have a solid play in road games, posting a 13-9-3 (.591) mark against the number in this span. Also, they have been outstanding at home in 2013, covering in all five games. Since 2011, they are 11-9-1 (.550) ATS at Paul Brown Stadium.

If looking for an alternative to the Patriots or Broncos, the Bengals jump off the page. The Chiefs have twice lost to the Broncos. While the Colts have a win against Denver, their recent form is shaky. Also, it’s hard to be excited about of the competitors for the No. 6 seed in the AFC; most of them have losing records. Moreover, 6-6 Miami and Baltimore don’t look to be building toward long postseason runs.

The Bengals are different. They are young and talented, and they may not yet have peaked. They have some postseason experience on which to draw, but that experience will be underrated, as it came in a pair of losses. They are underdogs with upside.

Note: Point spread data is from "The Linemakers" of Sporting News and Marc Lawrence's 2013 Football Stat and Log Book.