- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Bengals in 2012.
Dream scenario (11-5): The Bengals end their three-decade-long streak of inconsistency and put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Cincinnati wins its second division title in four years and hosts a playoff game at a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
The offense takes another step forward in coordinator Jay Gruden's second season. A.J. Green becomes a top-five receiver in the NFL and turns in a Calvin Johnson-like season (Johnson produced 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second season). Wide receiver Brandon Tate and rookie third-round pick Mohamed Sanu make surprising impacts and fill the void left by Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. The running game goes from plodding to productive with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and two new run-blocking guards in veteran Travelle Wharton and first-round pick Kevin Zeitler.
The defense remains top 10 in the NFL and avoids a second-half swoon like last season. Rey Maualuga becomes a force in the middle now that he is healthy and adjusted to playing inside linebacker again. Cornerback Leon Hall is able to start the season after making a full recovery from last season's Achilles injury. The rest of the cornerbacks (Adam Jones, Jason Allen and Terence Newman) show they still have first-round talent. Safety Reggie Nelson lives up to his new four-year, $18 million contract.
Nightmare scenario (6-10): New players, same result. Even with an influx of young talent, the Bengals once again show they can't follow up a successful season, which crushes the momentum built from last year's surprising playoff season and productive offseason. This would follow the Bengals' pattern. Cincinnati had a four-win season after the last time it had gone to the playoffs in 2009.
Quarterback Andy Dalton suffers from a sophomore slump and regresses after defenses have had a full offseason to dissect him. Green also can't put up the same numbers from a year ago, although it's not his fault. Defenses clamp down on him because the Bengals don't have anyone to step up to become the No. 2 wide receiver. Green-Ellis, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry, doesn't upgrade the running back position over Cedric Benson.
Defensively, the Bengals start the season without Maualuga, who receives a suspension for violating the personal conduct policy. Hall doesn't heal as fast as expected and begins the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning he misses the first six weeks of the season. His replacements prove to be either too old (Jones, Allen and Newman) or too young (first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick). New starting safety Taylor Mays becomes a liability in pass coverage.