Experts' Picks (Consensus: first)
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 The Bengals have just as much talent as the Ravens. Where they come up short, especially in big games, is at quarterback.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 After two years of being an AFC North wild card, the Bengals are ready to cash in and win this tough division. They are loaded on offense and defense.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 Very quietly, the Bengals have put together one of the most talent-rich rosters in the league.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Bengals need a few more playmakers on offense to take the next step. The defense is solid, and this division is up for grabs.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 There might not be a better defense in the conference than the Bengals'.|
Five things you need to know about the Bengals:
1. Next step for Green: This is the year when A.J. Green is expected to join the elite wide receiver status of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Last season, Green finished seventh in the NFL in catches (97), 10th in receiving yards (1,350) and fourth in touchdown catches (11). But Green has produced more catches and receiving yards in his first two seasons than Johnson and Green did in theirs. The challenge for the Bengals is to continue to get the ball to Green when defenses are putting all their effort into stopping him.
2. Defining Dalton: There's no question that Andy Dalton is a very good quarterback. Whether he's a great one remains to be seen. Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but he's flopped in the postseason in both appearances. Although he threw 27 touchdown passes last season (more than Joe Flacco's career best), he also had four interceptions returned for touchdowns. The Bengals' defense looks championship caliber, but Cincinnati isn't going anywhere if Dalton can't do better than he has in his first two playoff games (zero touchdowns, four interceptions).
3. The new 'old' guy: The biggest free-agent addition this year was linebacker James Harrison. There are questions regarding what the 35-year-old former Pittsburgh Steelers player has left. If nothing else, Harrison brings meanness and toughness to a young, talented defense. But the Bengals need more plays out of their linebackers, and that's where Harrison will play a big part. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals' linebackers finished with the second-fewest tackles for loss (15) in the NFL last season. Since the start of the 2010 season, Cincinnati linebackers combined for 12.5 sacks, the sixth fewest in the league. Harrison might not be the dominating player from a few years ago, but he has 15 sacks in his past 23 games.
4. Draft impact: A big reason the Bengals are considered among the top 10 teams in the league is their recent draft success. Cincinnati has had four Pro Bowl players come from the past three drafts (wide receiver Green, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, quarterback Dalton and tight end Jermaine Gresham). That's tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the most in the NFL over that span. The Bengals believe this run will continue with their top two draft picks from this year, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard. Both were the first players taken at their position this year, and both are expected to provide big plays as rookies.
5. The drought: Despite reaching the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the longest active drought in the NFL. Cincinnati is 0-6 all time on the road in the playoffs, tied with the Saints for the worst road record in NFL postseason history. Coach Marvin Lewis is 0-4 all time in the playoffs. The only coach with more postseason losses without a win is Jim Mora, who went 0-6 with the Saints and Colts.
-- Jamison Hensley, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
The Bengals have made the playoffs in two straight seasons for the first time since 1981-82. This year, they'll try to make it three straight postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history.
A more efficient offense could be the key. It ranked 17th in points per drive, 15th in touchdown percentage and 20th in turnover percentage.
The key component of the Bengals' offense is wide receiver A.J. Green, who ranked in the top 10 last season in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Green was targeted the fifth most in the NFL last season (162 targets), but he caught fewer than 60 percent of his targets, ranking 99th of 134 qualified players in that category.
Improving in that regard could fall on the shoulders of quarterback Andy Dalton. His 50.7 Total QBR ranked 22nd in the NFL last season, and his 62.3 completion percentage ranked 12th.
The Bengals drafted running back Giovani Bernard in the second round to bolster a running attack that ranked 18th in rushing yards and 20th in yards per rush last season.
The Bengals will especially need to be more efficient offensively against division foes. Five of their six worst offensive performances in terms of points per drive last season came against AFC North opponents, including all four games against the Ravens and Steelers.
• The Bengals' defense ranked sixth in total yards allowed, fifth in yards per play allowed and sixth in points per drive allowed last season.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
DT Geno Atkins (15.2 avg. AV since 2010)
With an AV of 18, Atkins' 2012 campaign was among the 25 greatest seasons ever by a defensive tackle. His 12.5 sacks helped the Bengals D-line rack up an 8.7 percent adjusted sack rate, tied for the league lead.
-- Pro Football Reference