AFC North: The Big Question 71310

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Can the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals overcome a first-place schedule to duplicate last year's success?

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireCan Marvin Lewis coach the Bengals through a first-place schedule?
Coming off a division title and their first playoff appearance in four years, the Cincinnati Bengals have even higher expectations in 2010. But to repeat a run to the postseason, Cincinnati will have to accomplish the feat against a brutal first-place schedule.

Will the Bengals hold up against the NFL's elite?

Cincinnati has the league's fourth-toughest strength of schedule this season and will play 10 games against opponents that had winning records a year ago. Four will be within the AFC North division against the Baltimore Ravens (9-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7).

On paper, this is the deepest and most talented team head coach Marvin Lewis has had in eight seasons in Cincinnati. The defense was ranked No. 4 last season, and the offense added weapons to the passing game to balance its already stout rushing attack.

By all accounts, the Bengals appear to have better chemistry than the 2005 playoff team. That group tasted one year of success and unraveled. Cincinnati suffered through three consecutive non-winning seasons from 2006-08, before finally turning it around last year.

"First and foremost, the teams are totally different," Bengals captain and offensive guard Bobbie Williams said recently. "The maturity on this team, even though it's a younger team, is phenomenal. Guys are way more focused, more hungry and way more professional. The hunger never dies. So it's totally different."

It has been well-documented that the Bengals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. The talent is there to end Cincinnati's streak, but a first-place schedule could be the team's biggest hurdle.

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