NFL Nation: AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis made the media rounds in Arizona on Thursday as he fulfilled various Super Bowl Week appearances.

It was during a seven-minute appearance on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" in the afternoon that Lewis spoke publicly for the second time about the standoff the Bengals and Broncos had this month over assistant coach Vance Joseph.

Joseph
Last week during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Lewis told Bengals.com and the Cincinnati Enquirer that the decision to block Joseph, one of the Bengals' co-defensive backs coaches, from leaving for Denver was "a hard one."

It was so hard because team president Mike Brown recognizes Joseph's value, Lewis said on the television show Thursday.

"My boss and owner sees him as a star," Lewis said, "and a guy that, as I told Vance, he could be sitting in my chair very quickly."

Lewis then added, laughing: "It could be next year."

Viewed in several NFL circles as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, the 42-year-old Joseph had been granted permission by the Bengals to interview for the Broncos' head-coaching vacancy that came open when John Fox was fired following Denver's divisional-round playoff loss to Indianapolis. Four days after Joseph's interview, former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was announced as Fox's replacement.

Not long after, word leaked that Kubiak and his new bosses favored bringing Joseph on board as they tried to fill their empty defensive coordinator position. Before joining the Bengals last offseason, Joseph had served as Kubiak's defensive backs coach for three years when Kubiak was the head coach of the Houston Texans.

Once they discovered the Broncos' intentions, the Bengals blocked Joseph from voiding his contract in order to leave for the coordinator position. Had he instead been offered the head-coaching job, perhaps their stance would have been different.

Denver on Wednesday hired longtime coach Wade Phillips to run the defense.

"Vance understands how things work. All coaches do," Lewis said Thursday. "Anytime you're in that situation as a coach, the very first thing should be if I can be released from my contract. As we know, as you look across the league, some are and some aren't, and that's part of the process.

"As Mike reminds me, his No. 1 devotion is to the Cincinnati Bengals. That's what he's in charge of is his club and our club, and what's best for us."

Though Lewis might have been joking about it, the Bengals do seem to have the makings of a succession plan in place in the event 2015 is his final season. For now, Lewis is set to coach next season on the final year of a contract. The team hasn't given any indication if it plans to sign him to an extension sometime this offseason.

Along with Joseph, the Bengals also already have another former head coach on their staff in Hue Jackson, the offensive coordinator who interviewed for the Buffalo Bills' opening this month.
One was an absolute wrecking ball on defense, consistently finding his way to the football. The other was eased into his team's offense before ultimately taking it over the second half of the season, and helping it earn a postseason berth.

But only one would be named the AFC North's Rookie of the Year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesIn his rookie season, Ravens LB C.J. Mosley registered five or more tackles in every game.
That honor went to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who barely edged out Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. From the five-person voting panel, Mosley received 12 overall points to Hill's 11. Mosley also had three first-place votes to the two that went to Hill.

Out of the pair, Hill is the only one up for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award that will be announced this weekend in Arizona. He's the only AFC North representative, contending with a group made up of all offensive players. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Mike Evans and receiver Sammy Watkins also are up for the honor. No defensive player has earned the award since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh received it.

Mosley was seemingly everywhere for the Ravens this season. He had 129 tackles, the eighth-highest total for any defender in the league. He also was part of a defense that ranked eighth in the league.

In addition to the 129 tackles, Mosley also had three sacks, two interceptions and forced and recovered a fumble. The Alabama product also had 19 tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games, including 10 in the divisional-round loss to the Patriots. In a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis, he had a season-high 14 stops.

Hill became a threat for the Bengals starting in Week 9 when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win against the Jaguars. It was his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the win, and firmly put him in his fan base's consciousness. That week, and for the two after it, Hill started in place of Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back was resting after experiencing a series of injuries following hard hits in previous games.

Also during Bernard's absence, Hill rushed for 152 yards in a homecoming game at New Orleans. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and LSU product went on to become the Bengals' top option at running back after Bernard returned. Across the final nine weeks of the season, Hill rushed for 929 yards, more than any other back in that stretch.

In addition to their Rookie of the Year award, ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on four other honors for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player). We've been handing out the awards daily since Monday.

Mosley finished third in the division Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Hill finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting.

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Mosley, 12 points; Hill, 11; Joel Bitonio, 8, Cleveland; Martavis Bryant, 1, Pittsburgh.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the latest in "deflategate" and the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by two other NFL Nation reporters to discuss the big game.

Kevin Seifert (NFL Nation writer) takes us behind the multi-step process that goes into the pregame checking of football inflation, and the impetus behind the league allowing quarterbacks to play with their own footballs. He also chats briefly about the Super Bowl's head referee, Bill Vinovich, and what we might be able to expect from his mixed crew.

Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) shares his thoughts on covering the Super Bowl after having been in the press box of each championship game since Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta in 1994.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com this Friday at 1 p.m./10 a.m. PT as we catch up with Legwold and ESPN Insider's Mike Sando, who will fill us in on the Hall of Fame selection process that will occur this weekend.

Also, be sure to give the show's podcast a listen following each taping.

Listen to this week's podcast here.
Andy Dalton still hasn't won a game in January.

With 3:10 remaining in Sunday night's Pro Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback had a chance to lead a dramatic comeback drive that would have given his team the win and an additional $27,000 in his and his teammates' pockets.

None of that would happen, though.

After generating momentum and getting his offense into the red zone, Dalton effectively ended Team Carter's (coached by Hall of Fame receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter) hopes at winning 13 plays later when he delivered a poorly-thrown pass that fell several yards away from the two pass-catchers that were in its vicinity. Rushed by four defensive linemen, including his Bengals teammate Geno Atkins, Dalton delivered the throw off his back foot while trying to avoid the rush.

The incomplete pass, thrown with 53 seconds left in the game, sealed the 32-28 win for Team Irvin (coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin).

Only once on the drive did Dalton target his Bengals teammate, A.J. Green. It was one of three passing attempts Green drew from Team Carter's quarterbacks. He didn't catch a single one of them. Defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes on all three plays, Green had a tough time generating enough space to make a catch. The lone target he had from Dalton landed well short of his feet as Dalton felt Grimes stepping up for an interception, and decided to throw short so the corner couldn't complete the pick-off.

Dalton completed four of his first five throws on the final drive -- all screens or other short routes to running backs Alfred Morris or Justin Forsett. After Forsett's 13-yard reception put Team Carter at Team Irvin's 19, Dalton missed on four-straight passing attempts, including the one to Green. Officially, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was credited with being targeted on Dalton's last incompletion, but the fourth-down throw was headed toward both he and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

Dalton, voted the seventh alternate by fans in December, was added to the Pro Bowl roster last week after the Super Bowl quarterbacks were forced into missing the game, and also after Baltimore's Joe Flacco bowed out because of the birth of his child. The Bengals' signal-caller who signed a six-year contract extension in August went 9-for-20 for 69 yards Sunday. He was sacked once, had a 54.0 passer rating and averaged 3.5 yards per completion.

Like Green, Atkins didn't have any statistical contributions. The Bengals' other Pro Bowl selection, punter Kevin Huber, had one 56-yard punt that traveled to the opposing 6 before the return team tried to bring it back with a lateral. The return only went for eight yards.

Dalton still hasn't won a game in January. He entered the Pro Bowl 0-5 in regular-season and playoff games in the month. His latest January loss was his 26-10 loss at Indianapolis on Jan. 4.
CINCINNATI -- It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason, but in certain circles, Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown has earned the reputation of being an owner who abhors winning.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

Maybe it was all those years of abject mediocrity and abysmal play his team showcased for so long after he took command following the death of his father, NFL legend Paul Brown, in 1991. Or perhaps it was the Bengals' apparent penchant during most of the 1990s for missing out on draft picks and picking more duds than future stars.

Maybe it was a combination of both.

[+] EnlargeMike Brown
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals president Mike Brown is "pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency," according to coach Marvin Lewis.
Whatever earned Mike Brown such a reputation, it's long past time for the myth to be put to rest. Coach Marvin Lewis' comments this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, indicated as much. If you go by what Lewis said, Brown is as adamant as anyone around the Bengals about clearing this four-year, first-round playoff hurdle and getting them one step closer to their goal of getting back to the Super Bowl.

Lewis made it clear in a conversation with the Cincinnati Enquirer and Bengals.com that with respect to the Bengals' free-agency plans this year, don't expect the team to sit back and let the rest of the league wheel and deal around them. Look for them to be a little more aggressive. You can thank Brown for that.

"He doesn't want to hear, 'We will be better when we get these guys back,' " Lewis said in the Enquirer. "No, we need to get better. He knows we need to get better. He's pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency."

Yes, pushing is the job of an owner or team president. And yes, the members of the Brown family who run the team have made similar charges to coaches and scouts in years past. In this instance, though, management is angered the team keeps hitting a wall.

Some reading this will question why the Bengals -- if they recognize the need for change -- didn't fire Lewis after a fourth straight early playoff exit?

Because for now, the organization values something else over making such rash moves: stability.

There is a belief around Paul Brown Stadium that the Bengals have a solid foundation for success right now. They believe that foundation is the reason they have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons. It's also the reason they aren't in favor of letting go of coaches or even demoting slightly underperforming quarterbacks. Between coaching, talent, development, and potential, the Bengals believe their window for making a third Super Bowl trip still is wide open, thanks to the base they have established the past four years.

Brown's insistence on more free-agency aggression seems a sign he's putting this latest wild-card loss on himself. If another early exit happens next season -- particularly after a second-straight season with a fully intact staff, and a year after making these philosophical changes to free agency -- then perhaps the foundation gets rocked as the blame can more easily be shifted to others -- like the head coach.

The pressure to build a 2015 contender is on.

"It's a different feel than where we have been," Lewis said. "It's not a status quo. There has not been a status quo conversation or, 'Oh, we'll be OK, we'll just get these guys back.' No, no, no, that's bull. We got to be better."
It only took a matter of minutes for A.J. Green to come off the board during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

Taken with the third overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver was drafted by the Pro Bowl team that will be coached by former Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. Green was the first non-quarterback taken, and the second player selected by Irvin and player-captains, Antonio Brown and J.J. Watt. Brown and Watt were named captains of the team Tuesday.

Green was the only Bengals player actually picked in the draft, as the other four Pro Bowl selections were assigned to their teams as part of this second year of the "unconferenced" format. Before Wednesday's draft, players either were voted or named as alternates to one single Pro Bowl team that was subsequently separated into two teams with the draft.

To help keep Sunday night's all-star game in Arizona fair, certain players were assigned to each team.

In the Bengals' case, quarterback Andy Dalton was assigned to Carter's team with Green, while punter Kevin Huber and defensive tackle Geno Atkins were assigned to the other team coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. It means if Atkins and Dalton are on the field at the same time, the lineman actually could sack his quarterback.

Atkins only had three sacks this season after coming off an ACL tear last year. By all accounts, physically, he was fully healthy all year. He had 12.5 sacks in the last complete season he played before this year, 2012.

Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2014. Green, who was voted to the Pro Bowl with Huber, caught 69 passes and set career-lows with 1,041 yards and six touchdowns. Hurt off and on, Green missed parts of five games. Huber ranked fourth this season in net punting, but he led the league in percentage of punts inside both the 10- and 5-yard lines.

This is Green's fourth Pro Bowl, Atkins' third, Dalton's second and Huber's first.
The Cincinnati Bengals have blocked co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph from leaving for a job with the Denver Broncos, according to a report from Fox Sports.

Joseph
Fox Sports' Alex Marvez, who is in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, reported late Tuesday night that the Bengals will not allow Joseph out of his contract in order to become the Broncos' new defensive coordinator.

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold reported Wednesday that Denver had been informed the Bengals would not let Joseph out of his contract.

It had been reported earlier Tuesday that Bengals president Mike Brown wanted to meet with Joseph before deciding whether he would let the assistant coach leave. Brown and Joseph are both in Mobile, assisting other members of the Bengals' coaching staff and front office in scouting potential draft targets.

What set all of this in motion were the events of last Friday, when Joseph interviewed with the Broncos for their still open head-coaching vacancy. Ultimately, the job went to former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who was introduced as the team's 15th head coach Tuesday.

From 2011-13, Joseph served under Kubiak as a Texans assistant. Once Houston transitioned last offseason from Kubiak's staff to current head coach Bill O'Brien's, Joseph was among those out of work. He wasn't out of a job long, though. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis quickly hired him as a secondary coach paired with Mark Carrier. It was a move that had many in NFL circles envious of the Bengals because Joseph, 42, has long been tabbed a coaching prospect on the rise.

It's clear the Broncos flew Joseph out to see how he might fit as a defensive coordinator. By all indications, they liked what they heard from the former Colorado Buffaloes backup quarterback, and had plans of making a move to bring him into the fold. That was until Brown and the Bengals reportedly stepped in between.

This isn't the first time Cincinnati has blocked an assistant coach from leaving. In 2011, then-defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle was blocked from interviewing with the Eagles. A year later, the Dolphins hired him as their defensive coordinator.

Regardless what Joseph's future looks like, the Bengals know they are on borrowed time with him. The way his career is trending, it is only a matter of time before he becomes a defensive coordinator and/or a head coach.

When he was first hired last offseason, Joseph harped on how technique and teaching proper fundamentals were his greatest assets as a coach. It clearly paid off this season with Dre Kirkpatrick, a third-year backup cornerback who had the best season of his career in 2014. Kirkpatrick was seldom beat and was routinely in position, even on the throws that did get by him. He also had three interceptions, including the two pickoffs he had in the final three minutes of the Bengals' Monday night win against Peyton Manning and the Broncos last month.

With Joseph reportedly staying, the Bengals will have in place a defensive staff that will move into its second season with Paul Guenther as its coordinator.
Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the latest in the league's coaching changes.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by four other NFL Nation reporters to discuss the recent hirings made by the teams they cover.

Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) discusses the hiring of Gary Kubiak, minutes before Kubiak was introduced to media in the Mile High City. Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears reporter) chats about former Broncos head coach John Fox's recent hiring in the Windy City. Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) talks about Todd Bowles becoming the Jets' new head coach. And Bill Williamson (Oakland Raiders reporter) and Gutierrez break down the decisions that brought Jack Del Rio back to the Bay Area, and kept Jim Tomsula there.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com each Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, and give the show's podcast a listen following each taping.

Listen to this week's podcast here.
Welcome to ESPN's first NFL Nation TV podcast.

Take a listen as the NFL Nation TV crew breaks down this past week's news -- from coaching searches to the ruling on Dez Bryant's catch-no catch, to this weekend's conference championship games.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) were joined by three other NFL Nation reporters.

Terry Blount (Seattle Seahawks reporter) and Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers reporter) chatted about the NFC title matchup. Wells and Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) filled us in on AFC Championship Game, and whether a win for him might solidify Andrew Luck's status as an elite signal-caller.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com each Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, and give the show's podcast a listen following each taping.

Listen to the podcast here.
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» AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Injuries and changes at their top two assistant-coaching positions had many convinced at the start of the season the Cincinnati Bengals would struggle to repeat as AFC North champion.

Despite all of that, they almost did it. For six of the last seven weeks of the regular season, they led the division, helped in large part by a tie that should have really been a win. Had they made a 36-yard overtime field goal against Carolina, they would have finished with a somewhat unexpected 11-win season.

It was in the regular-season finale that they lost the division following a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Sunday, they lost something bigger: a fourth straight playoff game. The defeat calls into question what the future ought to look like for a talented team whose Super Bowl window might be closing.

Team MVP: Three players deserved true consideration for this. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth didn't allow a sack all season and led all qualifying offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency metric that accounts for how few times the linemen allow pressures on their quarterbacks. Cornerback and return specialist Adam Jones keeps playing better the older he gets. On Friday, he earned first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors as a kick returner. As well as those two played, though, rookie running back Jeremy Hill was the real difference-maker. His 929 rushing yards in the final nine weeks of the season led all backs and provided a much-needed spark to the Bengals' offense. He's a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.

Best moment: Amid a steady rainfall on a chilly December night in Cincinnati, the Bengals defeated future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning for the first time when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick picked off two of Manning's passes in the final three minutes. The first one, with 2:41 left, was the product of Kirkpatrick making a smart, outside-shoulder read on his receiver's route. It looked like Manning practically threw the short pass directly to him. Kirkpatrick's subsequent return for touchdown put the game out of reach, helping give the Bengals a playoff berth and allowing them to prove they can win in prime time.

Worst moment: The low moment of the season came in Week 6 when kicker Mike Nugent was brought on at the end of an overtime period to kick a game-winning, 36-yard field goal. The ball sailed wide right as time expired. The game ended in a 37-37 tie that was one of the difference-makers in getting the sub-.500 Carolina Panthers into the postseason. It was the last miss Nugent would have before pushing another wide at Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. He went 15 straight before the 50-yarder didn't go through the uprights at Heinz Field. The 10-year vet further redeemed himself with a franchise-long 57-yarder at Indianapolis on Sunday.

2015 outlook: Just as the 2014 season seemed promising last January, so does the 2015 campaign at this point. Though it remains to be seen what changes might come to the coaching staff and personnel ranks following a fourth-straight playoff loss, little else should be lost in positions of value. If anything, the Bengals will have gains -- and big ones -- entering next season. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones will begin the year healthy, with a more experienced Mohamed Sanu. Tight end Tyler Eifert will presumably be at full strength, as will linebacker Vontaze Burfict. As four of their biggest-name free agents, decisions on Jermaine Gresham, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman and Devon Still could create intrigue during the offseason.
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CINCINNATI -- Twice in his end-of-season news conference Monday -- once at the beginning, once more near the end -- Marvin Lewis offered remorse to the city of Cincinnati and the fans of his team who inhabit it.

The 12th-year Cincinnati Bengals head coach understood how desperate they have grown for a playoff win. After Sunday's 26-10 wild-card round loss at Indianapolis, they still haven't seen a Bengals postseason victory since January 1991.

"I'm disappointed for the team. I'm disappointed for our fans. I'm disappointed for the city," Lewis said during his near 30-minute media session. "The city needs to win on a big scale. Big time. They deserve it. And that's what I'm disappointed in. It's not about me, it's about them.

"One day when I walk out of [the news conference room], hopefully I leave that trophy in here, and I just keep on stepping. That's all I want to do. I'm telling you, that's all I want to do. And you'll never hear from me again."

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCoach Marvin Lewis says his team's goal isn't just to be in the playoffs, but to be "world champions."
With Sunday's loss, Lewis became the second coach in NFL history to have lost six consecutive playoff games while associated with the same team. Steve Owen was the only other coach to accomplish the ominous feat, doing so in 1939-50. He had two NFL championships before the playoff drought began, and ended up coaching three more seasons after the sixth playoff loss. His 22-year career -- all spent with the New York Giants -- ended following a 3-9 campaign in 1953.

Like Owen, even after playoff loss No. 6, Lewis doesn't appear to be heading anywhere.

In order to better put his team in position to win a playoff game, Lewis said Monday his entire staff needed to coach better.

"I told our coaches [Monday] that moving forward, we're going to find a way to do better," Lewis said. "We've got to do better. We've got to find a way to get our guys through the little things, the critical moments of the game, to get those things done in a game that has the importance of a playoff game."

The Bengals didn't have any memorable plays on offense, and they couldn't take advantage of cornerback Darqueze Dennard's forced fumble in the second half. Big, momentum-turning plays like Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's well-placed third-quarter, 36-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief while being tackled, didn't happen for the Bengals.

Lewis said he hadn't yet reached the point in the offseason where he and the front office have discussed making changes to the coaching staff.

At least one change could come whether he wants it to or not. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could land a head-coaching job for the first time since the Raiders fired him in 2011.

Whether that happens, the bottom line is Lewis believes it's on all his coaches to get the team better prepared to achieve more.

"You're fortunate to have earned your way into the playoffs again, but we're not here just to go to the playoffs," Lewis said. "In fact, that's not even a goal. Our goals are to be undefeated at home, win the AFC North and be world champions.

"So we're not satisfied with just being in the playoffs. There's a lot to be proud of for our players, the things they've accomplished, but there's more to it than just getting there. That's why we do this."
CINCINNATI -- Defensive tackle Geno Atkins' salary commanded 7.15 percent of the Cincinnati Bengals' cap this season.

Atkins
That was the second-highest cap percentage on the team behind quarterback Andy Dalton. His recent six-year contract extension, worth up to $115 million, made him command 7.2 percent of the team's 2014 cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Clearly, Atkins wasn't being paid this season to be an ordinary, middle-of-the-roster player.

Yet that's exactly the type of player he appeared to be at times this season in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's eyes.

"This year, he was just three-technique No. 20, in my mind," Guenther said. "He was just a guy out there."

One year removed from the extension that will earn him $55 million by 2018, Atkins hasn't played like the pass-rusher that earned the massive contract. Neither has fellow well-paid lineman Carlos Dunlap, for that matter. The two combined for 11.5 sacks in 17 games this season, including Sunday's 26-10 playoff loss at Indianapolis. In 2012, the season that practically earned both their respective massive contract extensions, they combined for 18 sacks in 17 games.

"I always tell them our best players have to play good in these big games," Guenther said. "All the time. It can't be sometimes. It's got to be all the time. If our best players don't play good then there is a big chance we are not going to play good."

Against the Colts on Sunday, Atkins had three tackles and a half sack. His lone partial takedown of Andrew Luck came when Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt pushed past his blocker and forced the quarterback into his hands and, consequently, Atkins'.

Atkins is also now a year and two months removed from the ACL tear he suffered in a Thursday night game at Miami. After surgery, he spent all offseason rehabbing the injured knee and slowly eased his way back into practicing at the tail end of training camp. He appeared to be somewhat limited and a little timid as he took on blockers at the beginning of the season.

It really wasn't until Week 8 when he started showing flashes of his old self before the injury.

"He didn't have the explosion he had in the past," Guenther said. "When you start seeing that, you've got to make a decision as a coordinator. Can you do this with four guys or do you have to do this somewhere else?"

The old Atkins, the one that had 12.5 sacks in 2012 and 7.5 the year before, was a Pro Bowl player.

Guenther is desperate to get him back.

"We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside," Guenther said. "Otherwise, we need to go find a new inside rusher."

Any decision to release Atkins would come from somebody well beyond Guenther. Financially speaking, it's not likely. The Bengals won't get a cap savings for letting go of Atkins until after the 2015 season.
The Cincinnati Bengals have 15 free agents as they enter the 2015 offseason following Sunday's 26-10 loss in the wild-card playoff game. The new league year opens at 10 a.m. ET on March 10, when unrestricted free agents can sign with any team.

Here's a list of the Bengals' unrestricted and restricted free agents:

Unrestricted:
Jason Campbell, QB
Cedric Peerman, RB
Dane Sanzenbacher, WR
Brandon Tate, WR
Jermaine Gresham, TE
Alex Smith, TE
Clint Boling, OG
Marshall Newhouse, OT
Eric Winston, OT
Rey Maualuga, LB
Terence Newman, CB
Taylor Mays, S
Mike Nugent, PK

Restricted:
Devon Still, DT
Emmanuel Lamur, LB
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Four straight trips to the postseason, four straight first-round exits. Six playoff berths under head coach Marvin Lewis, six first-round exits. For the Cincinnati Bengals to take the next step, it seems something needs to change by July, when the team returns to preseason camp.

Should that change come at the head-coaching position?

When the Bengals re-signed Lewis to a one-year extension last March, the 2014 season was viewed as a proving ground. Lewis had another chance to get the playoff win that has eluded him since he became head coach in 2003.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Michael Conroy/AP PhotoMarvin Lewis is 0-6 in the playoffs as the Bengals' head coach.
Team president Mike Brown didn't want Lewis entering a lame-duck season. He thought Lewis was close to getting the team over its postseason road block and that it might happen this season.

"Marvin is driven to achieve more," Brown said last March. "We are one of only five teams to qualify for the playoffs the past three years, and our prospects are bright looking ahead."

Still, it was a one-year extension that runs through the 2015 season. Coaches who are successful in the postseason don't usually have to settle for one-year extensions.

Now the Bengals face a similar decision this offseason, involving Lewis as lame-duck coach.

The Bengals' season ended Sunday with an abysmal second-half offensive showing in a 26-10 loss to the Colts. The loss made Lewis just the second coach in NFL history to lose his first six postseason games; the other is Jim Mora. It was an all-too-familiar feeling for a team that, according to Elias, just tied the NFL's longest streak of playoff games (four) with 13 or fewer points.

Much like with Lewis', the Bengals can revisit quarterback Andy Dalton's contract after the 2015 season. Although Lewis could be refused a renewal, Dalton soon could be released without penalty if the team doesn't think his performance is up to par. He signed an extension through 2020 in August, but the guaranteed money was all paid this year. After next season, in the event the Bengals release Dalton, they will begin having cap savings that increase each year. Had he been released this season, the Bengals would have taken a more than $8.5 million cap hit.

Lewis was all-in for Dalton's extension over the summer. Now, they both could be fighting for their futures next season.

"Tomorrow's not promised for anyone," Lewis said Sunday in his postgame news conference. "That's part of life in the NFL and the finality of losing when you lose in the playoffs."

The question is always: What have you done for me lately? Overall, Lewis has done a lot. He has won 100 games. He has drafted well and signed undrafted players the past four years, whom many in NFL circles regard among the best at their respective positions. He has cleaned up the character issues that defined the tumultuous middle years of his tenure. He has built the Bengals into a respected AFC power.

But the playoff losses and his quarterback's inability to be depended upon in games of that magnitude are significant issues.

To get over the hump, something will have to change for the Bengals this offseason. Will it be the head coach?

Only time will tell.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Gresham
Lamenting injury losses: All season, the Bengals have harped on how they hated using injuries as excuses. But the fact is, had it not been for ailments to certain players at critical times of the season, perhaps the year would have ended differently. In addition to playing another game without Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals learned Saturday they would be without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. Hours before Sunday's game, they found out Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham would be missing, too. Asked about how hard Green and Gresham's absences made things for the offense, receiver Mohamed Sanu said, "Extremely hard. When they [the Colts] have their best players playing and we have some of our best players missing, you can't do what we want to do."

Health a key to 2015? Sticking with the injury theme, rookie running back Jeremy Hill said the biggest change the Bengals needed to undergo in the offseason was simply getting healthy. In addition to the trio above, the Bengals also were without Marvin Jones -- their second-leading receiver in 2013 -- and tight end Tyler Eifert, among others, this year.

'Look at the Panthers': Like most Bengals, safety George Iloka was disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game. He knows this loss will "resonate with longtime fans" who haven't seen a postseason win since January 1991. "It's also going to resonate with us," Iloka added. "Like they say, you're only as good as your last game." He added that it didn't necessarily matter how a team got to the postseason. It only mattered what the team did once it got there. "You've got to find a way to come out with the win," Iloka said. "Look at the Panthers. They're under .500 and they found a way to win." Carolina beat Arizona in Saturday's NFC wild-card round game after finishing the regular season 7-8-1.

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