How Far Can the Cincinnati Bengals Go in 2012?

Matt GrayContributor IJanuary 22, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 07:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass in the first half against the Houston Texans during their 2012 AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Reliant Stadium on January 7, 2012 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Given the turbulent offseason that preceded this one, it comes as a welcome relief that news coming out of Cincinnati is pretty slow right about now.

With Mike Zimmer's departure looking less likely in recent days, the 2012 Cincinnati Bengals could remain much the same team, from a coaching standpoint at least, as they were in 2011.

This will be good news for one of the youngest teams in the league as their development is still very much in its infancy and continuity at the coordinator and head coach positions is paramount.

While Marvin Lewis will face a tough challenge in bringing back a lot of the free agents on the roster, the presence of Jay Gruden and potentially Mike Zimmer too will certainly help his cause.

So let's look at it this way: if the Bengals can re-sign the talent they need to via free agency, how far is this team from another playoff appearance? Not only that, but how far is this team from a playoff run?

Here's a look at the Bengals' opponents in 2012:

Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants

Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins

The stand-out games have to be Carson Palmer's return to Paul Brown Stadium as the Oakland Raiders travel to Cincinnati as well as another meeting with the San Diego Chargers which is sure to be as exciting a contest as always.With the AFC West and the NFC East on the cards in 2012, plus Jacksonville and Miami thrown in for good measure, the Bengals' road to the playoffs is a decidedly mixed bag. There are very few games that can be marked down as definite wins, with a lot of these teams fairly evenly matched with Cincy.

Denver have an uncanny ability to beat the Bengals with mediocre sides, which will be a concern despite the home-field advantage. Meanwhile, the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants clashes promise to be real tests of the Bengals' progression. 

Division games will be a key in 2012. With Pittsburgh retooling somewhat and Baltimore at their best since 2000, the balance of power has shifted in the AFC North. Cincy will have an opportunity to establish themselves in a changing division, and with both the Steelers' and Ravens' defenses facing the subject of age right now, the Bengals offense will have the upper hand.

Avoiding a sophomore slump is likely to be Marvin Lewis' key concern as he heads towards the offseason. However, with a good haul of draft picks and a lot of bright young stars on the roster, there is certainly potential for some meaningful progression in 2012.

Continuity will be the key to getting things off the ground. Mike Zimmer's defense loves playing for their DC and with some help via the draft and a thorough training camp, they can become more consistent. The worry is that if Mike Zimmer gets offered a job, the defense will struggle not only with a hit to their morale but with the possibility of having to change a system they are only just beginning to master.

While the Bengals went one-and-done in the playoffs once again, the residual feeling was one of hope for the future. This young team firmly and excitingly got off the starting blocks in 2011, and if they can maintain the positives that brought them so far in their first year, then they can knock off some big teams in 2012.