Bengals regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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Final Power Ranking: No. 11
Preseason Power Ranking: No. 32

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesRookie quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Bengals back to the playoffs after Cincinnati finished 4-12 in the 2010 regular season.
Biggest surprise: When the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in the second round, many thought he could develop into a starting quarterback despite his lack of ideal size and arm strength. Few expected a rookie out of Texas Christian to help turn around the four-win Bengals into a playoff team. He also became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 touchdowns while winning eight or more games. Dalton's success led to a bigger surprise -- the Bengals were able to trade Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-rounder in 2013.

Biggest disappointment: The Bengals made no secret how important Leon Hall was to their defense when they signed the former first-round cornerback to a four-year, $39 million extension before the season began. So, it was a devastating blow when he tore an Achilles tendon and was done for the season in Week 10. One of the more underrated corners in the NFL, Hall could be counted upon for tight man-to-man coverage. In seven games without Hall, the Bengals have allowed 12 touchdowns through the air and have made six interceptions.

Biggest need: The glaring need on offense is at guard, where Cincinnati is currently starting an undrafted player on the left side (Nate Livings) and an Eagles cast-off on the right (Mike McGlynn). It doesn't look like long-time anchor on the interior, Bobbie Williams, will return after a season-ending ankle injury. The Bengals are set at tackle with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, who was the most improved player on the team. Both are former high picks by the Bengals, which shows they can build an offensive line through the draft.

Team MVP: While some might point to Dalton, the most important -- as well as most feared -- player on the field for the Bengals has been wide receiver A.J. Green. He led all NFL rookies with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more are the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998. As a result, Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003.

Tough decision: With Cedric Benson as the running back, Cincinnati could always expect 1,000 yards rushing and six touchdowns. But you got the sense that the Bengals and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden were relying less and less on Benson by giving more carries to Bernard Scott. Cincinnati could continue its youth movement on offense and draft a starting running back or it could look at the free-agent market. It's a little bit of a gamble because Benson has been so consistent. It'll become apparent whether Benson is in the Bengals' future plans this offseason, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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