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Today: The Cincinnati Bengals
Last Year: 11-5 (1st place in AFC North, lost in Wild Card Round)
Another playoff berth, another first-round loss. Yup, for the third consecutive season, the Bengals survived the regular season, only to come up short in their first playoff game. Still, despite the lack of postseason success, the Bengals put up a more than impressive showing in the 2013 regular season. Three of the Bengals’ five losses were by three points or less — including two overtime defeats. Ranked eighth in passing yards, the offense wasn’t even Cincinnati’s strength in 2013. Instead, the defense was a menace, both against the pass and the run. The Bengals ended the season ranked fifth in both categories.
However, for Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, the lack of postseason success is starting to catch up with them. For Dalton, the playoff loss three years ago — in which he threw three interceptions — was excused due to his rookie status. But two years ago, Dalton only threw for 127 yards in a first-round playoff loss. And, in their playoff loss to San Diego this past season, the Bengals only managed to score 10 points with Dalton throwing two interceptions.
With Dalton in a contract year this season, and with Marvin Lewis facing heat due to his lack of postseason success his entire coaching career in Cincinnati, the Bengals have plenty at stake in 2014.
Last Year’s Stud: AJ Green
As previously mentioned, the Bengals finished the 2013 season ranked eighth in total passing yards. The biggest reason why? AJ Green.
Snatching 98 catches, racking up 1,426 yards, and 11 touchdowns in his third-year, Green had his best season to date. His 1,426 yards ranked fifth among all wideouts and he was the third-most targeted player in all of football.
Runner-up: The defense
Last Year’s Surprise: Marvin Jones
Drafted out of Cal in 2012, Jones only managed 18 receptions in his first season. With AJ Green receiving the majority of the targets from Dalton, and with newly-drafted tight end Tyler Eifert in the offense, Jones wasn’t expected to have breakout season in 2013. But that’s exactly what Jones ended up doing. Appearing in all 16 games, Jones caught 51 passes, 10 of them going for touchdowns. He also totalled over 700 receiving yards.
Runner-up: Giovani Bernard
Last Year’s Disappointment: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Sure, Green-Ellis found the end zone seven times on the ground, but, besides that, he didn’t manage to do much. Green-Ellis actually had the worst season of his career statistically, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. With Giovani Bernard averaging just north of four yards per carry in his first season, Green-Ellis might be on his way out in 2014.
Runner-up: Tyler Eifert
The Bengals’ strength clearly lies with the defense, and in the 2014 NFL Draft the team decided to add another layer to its armor. With their first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State, the Bengals are content with building to their championship caliber defense. Dennard will offer some assistance to the biggest area of need on the defense: the secondary. In his last season at Michigan State, Dennard had 62 tackles and picked off opposing quarterbacks four times.
Other notable pick: William Clarke
This Year’s Stud: AJ Green (again)
Green’s not going anywhere, he’s going to be a top-tier receiver for plenty of years to come. With Andy Dalton in a contract year and with Green entering his peak years, there’s no reason to believe next season will a down-season for Green. For now, enjoy some more of Green’s magnificence.
Runner-up: The defense (again)
This Year’s Surprise: Jeremy Hill
It’s a crowded backfield, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis had the worst season of his career in 2013. With Giovani Bernard expected to take over the starting role, Hill will compete with Green-Ellis for backup duties. Bernard thrived in the backup running back role in 2013. Hill has a chance to do the same.
Runner-up: William Clarke
This Year’s Disappointment: Marvin Jones
I think the catches will be there, I just don’t think it’s possible for Jones to sustain the number of touchdowns he’s been scoring. Last season, Jones scored a touchdown on nearly 20 percent of all his receptions. That’s a tough number to maintain.
Runner-up: Mohamed Sanu
Draft early: AJ Green
Good value in the middle rounds: Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard
Don’t draft: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
What Vegas is saying (LVH sports book): 9 wins
What We’re Saying: 10-6 (1st place in AFC North)
Though they’re by far the best team in the AFC North, the offense worries me. Andy Dalton struck for over 30 touchdowns, but he also threw 20 interceptions and his arm-strength is still a concern. Still, Dalton should have another productive season, the defense should maintain its championship-worthy status, and the Bengals should waltz into the postseason. The true test for the team, however, is what it does once it enters the playoffs. Another early exit could mean the end of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.