On paper, the 2013 season looks like a huge success. The Bengals won the AFC North for the first time since 2009 and they looked like a major Super Bowl threat entering the postseason. After losing games at Miami and Baltimore in Weeks 9-10, the Bengals lost just once more. They were blowing people out at home, where the finished 8-0. Andy Dalton had his best season, throwing for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns, looking ready to join the NFL's elite.
Yet the Bengals crashed and burned in the playoffs for the third straight year. As a heavy home favorite in very frigid conditions against warm-weather San Diego in the wild-card round, the Bengals were dominated in a 27-10 loss despite leading 10-7 at the half. Cincinnati had beaten the Chargers in San Diego in Week 13. Dalton has been awful in his postseason career and that continued. Dalton threw for 334 yards but that was very misleading. He fumbled and threw two interceptions in the second half when the Bengals were outscored 20-0.
Every team in the NFL has won a playoff game since the Bengals last did in 1990. The pressure is on Coach Marvin Lewis (0-5 in his playoff career) and especially Dalton. His contract is up after the year. Dalton wants to be paid like a Top-10 QB but hasn't proven to be one yet, certainly not in the postseason. Keep an eye on whether the Bengals take a QB somewhat early in the 2014 draft. That could signal if they believe in Dalton long-term.
Key Offseason Moves
The Bengals have often been called a fairly cheap franchise so they usually don't add any big-name free agents and that was the case this winter. Really their only two moves of note were adding safety Danieal Manning from Houston and QB Jason Campbell from Cleveland to backup Dalton. Cincinnati lost one of its best defensive players in end Michael Johnson as well as serviceable offensive tackle Anthony Collins.
The coaching staff took a major hit as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach of the Vikings and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as Washington's top guy. The offense should look the same under Hue Jackson, who was promoted from running backs coach and formerly was a head coach of the Raiders. Cincinnati promoted long-time assistant Paul Guenther to replace Zimmer, who was very highly respected around the NFL. The Bengals defense finished in the Top 10 of the NFL four of the past five years under Zimmer, so Guenther has big shoes to fill.
2014 Schedule (all times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Bye week
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at New England, 8:30 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 6, Cleveland, 8:25 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 22, Denver, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Cincinnati's schedule is ranked as the 10th-easiest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .469. The Bengals play five games against teams that made the postseason.
The Bengals are 2.5-point underdogs on NFL odds for Week 1 at Baltimore, the fifth straight season that Cincinnati opens on the road (it lost at Chicago last season). The Ravens and Bengals split last season, each winning at home. Baltimore's win was 20-17 in overtime when the Bengals tied it on a 51-yard Hail Mary from Dalton to A.J. Green at the end of regulation. Should Cincinnati beat Baltimore this time, it could easily be 3-0 into the bye week as both the Falcons and Titans were below .500 last year. It's the earliest bye the Bengals have had under Lewis.
Cincinnati's toughest four-game stretch is out of the bye with games against playoff teams New England, Carolina and Indianapolis and finishing off with Baltimore before playing once against the other two AFC North teams. Cincinnati beat both the Patriots and Colts last year, but those were at home.
Weeks 9-10 should be home wins for the Bengals as they will be solid favorites at sportsbooks against the Browns and Jaguars. Both Houston and Tampa Bay struggled in 2013 so those aren't daunting road games. The division no doubt will be decided in December with Cincinnati playing three AFC North games. The Bengals split with the Steelers and Browns in 2013. They didn't play Denver, and that game could well have important playoff seeding importance. The Bengals are 0-8 all-time against Peyton Manning-led teams.
NFL free picks: 'Over' 9.5 wins on NFL odds. This team has a very good defense, two good running backs and a superstar receiver in A.J. Green. It's all on Dalton now, but the schedule is manageable.