Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bengals could take next step
If the Cincinnati Bengals are ever going to take that next step from playoff team to legitimate Super Bowl contender, this is the year.
As Marvin Lewis enters his 11th season on the sideline, the Bengals have the look of an emerging power in an AFC North that has seen the Ravens and Steelers hit hard by free agent defections.
“I think they're in perfect position to strike,'' says NBC analyst and former Bucs coach Tony Dungy. “Baltimore figures to take a step back after losing some people, and Pittsburgh is reorganizing.''
There's an opportunity for Cincinnati to establish control, armed with young quarterback Andy Dalton and an unheralded defense that finished in the top 10 in fewest points and yards allowed three of the past four years.
The Bengals experienced a funky 2012 season that saw them open with a blowout loss against the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens. After three consecutive wins, the Bengals suffered through a four-game losing streak that raised doubts about Lewis' future.
But that 3-5 start gave way to a 7-1 mark in the second half of the year, marred only by a 20-19 setback to Dallas that saw the Bengals fritter away a late nine-point lead.
Cincinnati's past two seasons ended with first-round playoff losses at Houston, but these Bengals appear poised to register their first postseason win since Sam Wyche led the 1990 club to a 41-14 rout of the Oilers.
One of the league's premier defensive lines is led by tackle Geno Atkins and end Michael Johnson, who combined for 24 sacks last season. Atkins, who also forced four fumbles, may be the game's premier interior lineman, while Johnson is a force against both the run and the pass.
The Bengals have had continuity on their staff, and coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer utilize their personnel well.
Cincinnati has surrounded Dalton with more weapons, and Gruden is eager to work with a pair of intriguing rookies.
Despite the presence of Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals couldn't pass up Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert with their top draft pick before adding running back Giovani Bernard. With Gresham and Eifert working the middle, star receiver A.J. Green should find more favorable matchups.
Bernard may not steal many carries from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he's a far more polished target out of the backfield and will help Cincinnati improve on that pedestrian 34.1-percent conversion rate on third down.
The Bengals have been a solid club for a couple of years, but they lacked confidence in crunch time on both sides of the ball.
Enter linebacker James Harrison, a former Defensive Player of the Year in Pittsburgh. The Bengals signed Harrison as a free agent, and he's excited about making the switch from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 scheme.
Harrison, 35, earned a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, and who could forget his 100-yard interception return against Arizona at Raymond James Stadium? One of the NFL's most intimidating players is determined to prove Pittsburgh wrong for releasing him on the brink of free agency.
With a combined 19-13 record, the Bengals are one of eight NFL teams to qualify for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. They have drafted well and done a nice job of developing talent.
Cincinnati fans want more — and you can't blame 'em.
“It's all going to depend on Andy Dalton,'' Dungy says. “He's got to take the next step, but that team's got playmakers.''