The 2013 Bengals won 11 games, third-most in their history. They outscored opponents by 125 points, a margin superior to their Super Bowl entrants of 1981 (+117) and 1988 (+125). They were 4-0 against eventual playoff teams, knocking off Green Bay, New England, San Diego and Indianapolis.
But once again, Cincinnati was one-and-done in the postseason. The Chargers, whom the Bengals handled in December, turned the tables in January, rolling to a 27-10 wild card win in Cincinnati. And once again, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played poorly on the playoff stage, committing three turnovers.
The loss dropped coach Marvin Lewis’ playoff record to 0-5, with three home playoff defeats. It also marked the 23rd consecutive season the franchise didn’t win a single postseason game.
The good news? The 2014 Bengals should contend for another trip to the playoffs. There are quite a few General Managers who would surely trade rosters with Cincinnati in a heartbeat, and that cannot be overlooked, even as another postseason setback is fresh in memory.
The Bengals’ defense is one of the league’s best. No AFC club was better stopping the opposition short on third downs a season ago, and only Seattle gave up less yards per play. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict (171 tackles in 2013 ) are the standouts on this skilled stop unit. Atkins, who comes off an ACL tear, is an outstanding interior rusher when healthy, while Burfict, a former undrafted free agent, has become a star.
The Bengals’ offense can hold up its end of the bargain, too. A.J. Green (98 catches, 1,426 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) is a bona fide go-to receiver, a tall, fast, athletic, sure-handed pass catcher who can shred secondaries. Tailback Giovani Bernard (695 yards rushing, 514 yards receiving) is an exciting playmaker, as is wideout Marvin Jones (51 catches, 712 yards, 10 TDs). The Bengals are deep at tight end, too, with Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham a nice 1-2 punch.
Dalton (4,293 yards, 33 TD passes, 20 interceptions) is durable and productive. His TD passes total about 61 percent of the club’s touchdowns in the last three seasons (80-of-132). Dalton enters the final year of his contract, and his future is a major storyline entering 2014.
Too many of Cincinnati’s drives end in Dalton turnovers. He committed at least two turnovers in 7-of-16 regular season starts in 2013 and followed that with two picks and one fumble in the wild card loss. If Dalton cuts down on the giveaways, this could be an elite offense on its very best, given the talent on hand.
With Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) coming off serious injuries, the Bengals’ defensive depth is an area to watch. Moreover, the club is a little thinner at defensive end after Michael Johnson’s departure in free agency.
Finally, the offense and defense will be adjusting to new coordinators. On defense, Paul Guenther replaces Mike Zimmer, who became Minnesota’s head coach. On offense, Hue Jackson takes over for Jay Gruden, now Washington’s head coach. Both Guenther and Jackson have ample experience in Cincinnati, which could shorten the transitional period.
The Bengals suffered a few losses in free agency, though that was to be expected. Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins received lucrative deals from Tampa Bay, which turned over its roster under new head coach Lovie Smith. The Bengals also lost slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to Cleveland after declining to match an offer sheet.
The Bengals released a pair of 2013 starters, parting ways with strong-side linebacker James Harrison and center Kyle Cook. Emmanuel Lamur could take over for Harrison, while veteran Mike Pollak and rookie Russell Bodine are among the competitors to replace Cook.
At the backup spots, the biggest move came with the addition of quarterback Jason Campbell, who reunites with Jackson, his head coach in Oakland three years ago.
In the draft, the Bengals added several rookies who could contribute right off the bat, including tailback Jeremy Hill, a second-round pick from LSU. The club’s first-round selection, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, joins a deep CB corps.
With a strong roster, competition is a given. Here are the positions to monitor:
Running back: The Bengals are willing to play young skill-position players, so Hill figures to get a real shot getting plenty of work. Bernard will not lack for touches, so any work Hill earns could put the squeeze on veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who’s slated to make $2.3 million this season.
Defensive end: With Johnson gone, there are more reps to be had opposite Carlos Dunlap. Wallace Gilberry (7.5 sacks in 2013) will get his share of work. Keep an eye on second-year pro Margus Hunt and rookie Will Clarke, two fresh faces at the position.
Center: Pollak, Bodine and Trevor Robinson are the candidates to take over for Cook.
The Bengals have a challenging schedule. They draw the NFC South in non-conference play, which entails trips to powerful New Orleans and improved Tampa Bay and home games against respectable Atlanta and Carolina. The Bengals will also face each of the AFC’s first-place clubs from a season ago (Denver, Indianapolis, New England). Finally, the club also draws an early bye (Week Four), which means any later-season injury issues will challenge the team’s depth.
In a scheduling quirk, six of Cincinnati’s first nine games are at home, including three in a row from Oct. 26 through Nov. 6 (Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cleveland). However, the Bengals then take a three-game Southern road trip, facing New Orleans, Houston and Tampa Bay in succession.
Nevertheless, the Bengals appear equipped to handle such regular season challenges. In fact, a hurdle-laden schedule could be just what’s needed to keep Cincinnati sharp as it goes for its fourth playoff berth in a row.
The Bengals are beyond the thrill of simply getting to the postseason. Winning in January is what they seek. Their last playoff win was at Riverfront Stadium, back before Nirvana’s “Nevermind” had even been released.
It’s been too long between playoff successes for Cincinnati, but so it goes in the NFL, which has no best-of-seven tournaments. The league does, however, have quite the tough 12-team, one-and-done bracket, as the Bengals know too well.