The Bengals rarely are the trendy pick to do anything other than not be very good. Heading in to the 2013 season, the Bengals are better than very good. The Bengals are becoming one of the elite teams in the NFL.
Even at No. 6, there’s a long way to go to get to the top of the mountain. For starters, the Bengals need to end a postseason losing streak that dates back to the game in which they ended Bo Jackson’s football career by destroying his hip on a routine tackle. And they need to get past the other elite teams in the AFC, like the Ravens, Broncos, and Patriots.
Regardless of whether it happens, the Bengals have become something they haven’t been for more than a generation: Relevant. And to the teams they’ll play this year: Dangerous.
Receiver A.J. Green quickly has become one of the very best receivers in the league, after only two NFL seasons. He’s Randy Moss without the play-when-I-wanna-play-goalpost-butt-rubbing-I-wouldn’t-feed-this-to-my-dog attitude. If Green played for a big-market team, he’d already be one of the faces of the league.
The tight end position became much stronger, too, with the selection of first-rounder Tyler Eifert to go with former first-rounder Jermaine Gresham. Look for the Bengals to get both of them on the field often, taking advantage of the extra attention paid to Green.
On defense, tackle Geno Atkins anchors an underrated line that includes franchise-tagged end Michael Johnson and end Carlos Dunlap, whose 20 sacks despite two career starts helped him earn last week a five-year, $40 million extension. Coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose inability to get a head-coaching job has worked to Cincy’s benefit, knows how to get the most from all his players, making the Bengals as balanced as any team in the league.
Quarterback Andy Dalton isn’t a weakness per se, but he’s not a strength, yet. More importantly, in a league that has two types of teams (those with franchise quarterbacks and those looking for franchise quarterbacks), Dalton needs to become a franchise quarterback or he’ll eventually be replaced. Like Christian Ponder in Minnesota, the influx of weapons makes it harder for the quarterback to blame anyone but himself if he doesn’t step up in year three.
The offensive line is more strength than weakness, but there’s a chance the recent surge from right tackle Andre Smith may have been a mirage. He re-signed for something other than the big-money deal he wanted, and yet by all appearances he’s acting like he got paid. Chances are he never will.
Beyond A.J. Green, the depth chart at the receiver position remains muddled. Mohamed Sanu emerged last year as a rookie, but a foot injury ended his season prematurely. If he’s healthy, he should be the starter across from Green. The rest of the wideouts need to find ways to contribute, or the Bengals could decide to use plenty of Green-Gresham-Eifert looks.
Former Steelers 3-4 linebacker James Harrison provides depth and flexibility for the Bengals’ 4-3 defense, where he can play outside linebacker in non-passing situations and slide to defensive end (or blitz effectively while stacked on a defensive end) on passing downs.
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard diversifies the rushing attack and short passing game, and Bernard possibly could knock BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the bench. Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert helps make the offense even more dynamics.
Beyond that, there weren’t many major changes, which is a good thing for a team that has been to the postseason for two straight years for the first time in franchise history when one of those years wasn’t shortened by a strike. Coach Marvin Lewis enters his 11th season with the franchise, and his third with offensive (Jay Gruden) and defensive (Mike Zimmer) coordinators. For plenty of the team’s free agents, Cincinnati’s patience was rewarded — and the end result is even more continuity.
Running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will battle each other for playing time, and the rest of the skill-position players for touches. Ditto for tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, who may also take reps and touches away from the team’s receivers if the team’s receivers can’t get it done.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been durable, but if he gets injured it’ll be Josh Johnson or John Skelton replacing him. Johnson could earn some opportunities in a Wildcat-style package.
On defense, a deep and talented defensive line (along with James Harrison, who could play some defensive end) provides a great rotation. How the opportunities ultimately shake out will hinge in some respects on how well the various players perform during training camp and the preseason.
But for the Broncos, who enter the second year of the Peyton Manning experiment, it would be tempting to predict that the Bengals will make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season. It’s more likely that the Bengals will get back to the playoffs for a third straight year — and perhaps finally win a postseason game.
If the break the curse of Bo Jackson’s broken hip, coach Marvin Lewis could be destined to lose one or both of his coordinators. Also, any free agents will be more attractive to other teams, forcing the Bengals to do something other than wait for them to not get offered more money elsewhere.
So this may be the year to go all in, which means the Bengals should be willing to take chances every week in order not just to get to the playoffs but to position themselves for success when they get there. Which could lead them all the way to New York, for an open-air Super Bowl with conditions that could resemble the 1981 AFC title game against the Chargers.