Mirror, mirror on the wall, and the question is what is going to determine the fairest of the two Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the 4-2 Bengals play their NFC equivalent, the Lions, naturally also 4-2, at Detroit's Ford Field.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth isn't about to say the Bengals have found their ID, but he likes what he sees in the mirror.
"I like where this team is," Whitworth said before Thursday's practice. "Not wins and losses, but where we are mentally."
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst, has been saying it all week in his exhausting breakdowns. Both have the big, tall dominant Pro Bowl wide receiver. Both have a tandem of dangerous tight ends. Both have an elusive, whirling-dervish catching passes out of the backfield. Both have dominant defensive lines with a Pro Bowl tackle. Like the Bengals, the Lions have six receivers on track to surpass 500 yards.
But beyond the depth chart the two teams also have a bit of the same intangibles.
After fits and starts and a lot of angst when they were going to get over the hump and chasing that elusive identity, both look ready to go on a run. The Bengals play their first game in first place in four years and the Lions are expecting a madhouse at Ford like they did when the Bears were false-started into oblivion two years ago during Detroit's 10-6 breakthrough season.
The Lions fell back to 4-12 last year, but they look to be in a groove with quarterback Matthew Stafford at ease in an up-tempo spread and revived with the playmaking of running back Reggie Bush. In two weeks the Bengals have followed up a dreadful loss in Cleveland with two performances they have dominated the clock and both lines of scrimmage to gut their way back to relevance.
"I don't know if it's so much an identity but a mentality," Whitworth said. "We're in attack mode and we want to attack teams in every phase."
Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga senses the Bengals have grown up some since the 17-6 loss in Cleveland on Sept. 29.
"I think so. It could have easily gone down in the Bills game. We could have given up (when they came back)," Maualuga said, "and who knows what would happen in overtime … but we acted the same."
The Lions have been attacking, too. And their aggresiveness hurts them at times. On seven first-and-10 snaps their defense has allowed runs of at least 20 yards, a big reason they're last in the NFL giving up 5.4 yadrs per rush. Throw in Adrian Peterson's 78-yard run against Detroit on one of the first snaps of the season and it's clear the Lions don't give it up every play, but they have been gashed.
The Lions may be rated only 29th against the run, but they attack well enough to have the NFL's second-best efficiency on third down without blitzing a lot. Which means that front four anchored by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh can be stifling. Which also means it's a huge test for second-year right guard Kevin Zeitler in his first scrum against the controversial, talented Suh.
How about this mirror job? Pro Football Focus rates Zeitler as the NFL's second-best run blocking guard and Suh as the NFL's second-best pass rushing tackle. Cincinnati's Geno Atkins is fourth. Overall, it's Atkins third and Suh seventh, and Zeitler is eighth overall among guards. Zeitler hopes the past two training camps pounding heads with Atkins pays off.
"Suh's a phenomenal player and so, of course, is Geno," Zeitler said. "Geno is Geno. He's always good and gets better. They're different players. It's hard to explain. I guess you could say Suh runs around a little bit more. Maybe he's a little more lateral. They've got different styles. You can tell on tape that Suh is strong, but he brings some pop, too, with quickness. Same with Geno. That's the one thing you know about Geno: strong."
No one on the Bengals has gone against Suh in the regular season and Zeitler wasn't here for the 2011 preseason game. But even if they were, Zeitler would do his own homework.
"You can listen to people and watch what they did, but in the end you have to draw your own conclusions," Zeitler said. "You watch tape until you feel comfortable and I've got some more tape to watch."
The Lions have also been attacking with the sixth-best passing game in the NFL, highlighted by Bush's third-most yards from scrimmage and rookie tight end Joseph Fauria's five touchdowns on seven catches to go with tight end Brandon Pettigrew's 20 catches.
Not unlike Bengals running back Giovani Bernard's most rookie yards from scrimmage and the red zone targets of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert that has yet to score.
"Detroit has some guys they can use at multiple positions on the field. You can match up anybody they have with some of the guys we have," Maualuga said. "They do similar things. During practice it helps out that we have an image of them.
"We know when 80 (Fauria) comes into the game, they're going to try to lob him the ball and jump up and get it. It helps that our offense can do a lot of things. The things that Gio does to us in practice, we know what to expect."
How much Maualuga is going to play is one of the questions because he, like SAM linebacker James Harrison, doesn't play much in the Bengals pass formations and this is shaping up like the Green Bay game where the Bengals are going to be mainly in nickel.
But that doesn't mean the Bengals don't think Maualuga is having the finest year of his five seasons. He understands when he gives way to safety Taylor Mays in the nickel, he'll be back at some point.
"I think I'm playing better," Maualuga said. "I go out there with the mindset I'm playing. If Taylor's name is called, l'll be looking on. If they call me, I'll give them everything I can get."
The matchup with Bush is where the loss of Cincinnati's best cover linebacker, Emmanuel Lamur, really hurts. It puts more stress on WILL Vontaze Burfict, the team's lone three-down backer, against both the run and the pass. One of the places where the Lions differ from the Bengals is they line up Bush as a true wide receiver who runs downfield routes, leaving the Bengals with dilemmas on how to cover Bush and Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
More mirror: Pro Football Focus rates Detroit's DeAndre Levy No. 1 among outside linebackers in coverage (hello Gio) and Burfict is ranked seventh.
But the practice look against Bernard should help. According to the NFL, Bush is first in the league with yards after catch and Bernard is second.
"We both have good, talented players. They're a solid team in the other conference built like we are. It will be good to see where we stand," Whitworth said. "I don't think it's a measurement game, but we have been playing teams kind of like us. You could make an argument about Buffalo last week with great offensive and defensive lines. They just need a couple of pieces. That was a great challenge on the road against an up and coming team."
And that's really where the Bengals and Lions are as they gaze into the mirror. They both hope they've moved on from up-and-comers to serious Super Bowl threats instead of underachieving blue-chippers.
Whitworth likes what is staring back at him even if it is a no-frills brand of ball possession, smattering of big plays, and air-tight field position.
"Identity is finding a way to win," Whitworth said. "I don't know what pretty is. Is that coming up with a lot of stats but no wins? Is that getting big stats and a lot of wins, but no winning (big) games? Finding a way to do your job. Finding a way to win. That's winning football."