The Bengals went 52-27-1 from 2011-15 with five consecutive playoff appearances. Not that anybody noticed. An 0-5 postseason record tends to make people disregard you as a contender.
After sinking to 6-9-1 last season, the Bengals truly are forgotten heading into this season. Cincinnati, though, doesn’t mind the role of underdog. Although they are young, the Bengals believe they have enough talent to rebound rather than rebuild.
The Bengals hope for better luck in the health department this year. Receiver A.J. Green missed six games last season, and tight end Tyler Eifert was out for six. They started only four games together. Andy Dalton missed his favorite targets, especially in the red zone, as he threw a career-low 18 touchdowns.
The Bengals lost five games by five points or less and arguably have as much talent as any other team in the division, so they might be closer to returning to the playoffs than most think.
Biggest positive change: The Bengals drafted speed, speed and more speed. Receiver John Ross’ 4.22 broke the combine record. Jordan Willis was the fastest defensive lineman, and Jordan Evans the fastest linebacker. Running back Joe Mixon and safety Brandon Wilson were the fastest among prospects at their positions, too. Ross and Mixon, the team’s top-two picks, give Andy Dalton two more weapons to go with A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert.
Biggest negative change: The Bengals offensive line wasn’t good last season, and it lost its two best players – Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler – in free agency. That leaves former first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi, who was benched at right tackle last season, to start at left tackle, and Jake Fisher, a second-round pick in 2015, to start at right tackle. Andre Smith returns after a year in Minnesota but will move to right guard. If the line can’t protect Andy Dalton or open holes for Joe Mixon, the Bengals are going nowhere in 2017.
Coaching thermometer: It’s 212 degrees. Boiling. Marvin Lewis, the Bengals head coach since 2003, enters the final year of his contract for the first time since 2010. He has received a series of one-year extensions in recent years but not this year. It might be now or never for Lewis to win a playoff game in Cincinnati.
We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Geno Atkins. Did you know the defensive tackle has made five Pro Bowls in seven seasons.? That he’s a two-time All-Pro? That he has 52 career sacks? That Atkins, 29, could end up being one of the best ever at his position? Let’s get to know him better.
How they can prove us wrong: The offensive line is better than expected, allowing Joe Mixon to run for 1,000 yards. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert stay healthy, allowing Andy Dalton to pass for his career averages of 3,700 yards and 24 touchdowns. The defense plays like it did in the second half of last season when it allowed 15.3 points per game, but gets more sacks (33) and takeaways (20) than last season. And rookie kicker Jake Elliott, whom the Bengals drafted in the fifth round, doesn’t miss six extra points and seven field goals like the team’s kickers did last season. All of that likely needs to happen for the Bengals to make the playoffs, but winning a playoff game for the first time since 1990 might be the only way Lewis earns an extension.