In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals made a magical run to the postseason. It was one of the more improbable runs in recent memory.
Now, we've moved on to 2012 and the Bengals certainly have given the Queen City a lot to be excited about. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were dazzling in their rookie seasons, and all of Cincinnati is anxious to see how they return this season.
Which brings me to my point: the Cincinnati schedule isn't an easy one. All in all, they're middle-of-the pack in strength of schedule, but it's always tough being in the same division as the Steelers and the Ravens.
That being said, let's break down another season for the black and orange and the Who-Dey nation.
For the first time in quite a while, the Bengals are going to be debuting on Monday night in 2012. They'll be facing their division foes, the Baltimore Ravens.
At this point, before the NFL draft, it's hard to say how both teams will look.
Still, let's look at the facts about Baltimore's defense. It is aging, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in particular. They've been staples for more than a decade, but you have to wonder just how effective they'll continue to be.
In addition, Baltimore has a relatively potent offense, led by running back Ray Rice.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, I still don't see them being on par with Baltimore in 2012. While I have plenty of faith in the Red Rifle and his surrounding cast, there are still going to be some growing pains.
The secondary will hold Joe Flacco in check, as I think it's going to be much better with the return of Leon Hall and the addition of newly-signed Terrance Newman.
Prediction: Baltimore's defense is far too tough, and the Ravens win the Monday Night opener, 21-10.
Both of these teams had 2011 campaigns that saw them go in the opposite direction from what people expected. The Browns, led by Colt McCoy and now-departed Peyton Hillis, were expected to make great strides, but fell miserably short.
Clearly, we know what Cincinnati did. The Browns are still a bit of a conundrum—a lot of rumors are circulating that they will be drafting Alabama running back Trent Richardson, which would really help an anemic offense. They were 29th overall in 2011. The loss of guard Eric Steinbach will hurt, but he's not irreplaceable.
The Cleveland secondary was pretty good last year, allowing 184.9 yards per game, second-best in the league. The problem was that they had basically no one to plug the running game.
Cincinnati should be equipped in the running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Doug Martin, so I expect to see them run all over what is still going to be a struggling rush defense.
Joe Haden will give Andy Dalton and A.J. Green fits, but I'll look for Jordan Shipley to have a big game.
Prediction: An impressive performance by Green-Ellis gives Cincinnati the lead early and the Bengals roll, 27-14.
Let's make it clear now: Robert Griffin III is going to be a Washington Redskin. Anyone who doubts it is lying to themselves.
It will be interesting to see what the Bengals' defense can do against such a unique talent. I feel confident in the ability of Carlos Dunlap to rush him (and do it often), but Griffin has a lethal combination arm—he's a sharpshooter and has an absolute cannon.
Terrence Newman, Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson and anyone else in the secondary will have a big problem.
Washington can certainly make some noise in 2012. They were off to a hot start in 2011 (defeated the world champion Giants twice, I may add) and they're not far from being a good team. The defense has been improved by the re-signing of London Fletcher and the additions in safety Madieu Williams and cornerback Brandon Meriweather.
The addition of Pierre Garcon really helps strengthen a pretty weak receiving corps. That position will be young in the nation's capital next season. They really could use some new faces.
Prediction: Despite hard attacks by Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, Andy Dalton tears the Washington secondary apart and the Bengals sneak away with a 17-13 victory.
Jacksonville is a team in a bit of a rebuilding stage. Blaine Gabbert, however, has the team worried about its decision to draft him.
The Jaguars have brought in talent to try to make the league's worst offense in 2011 a little better, including veterans Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans. There's certainly no question that the passing game was the problem and should be addressed.
Cincinnati's secondary (and defense as a whole) should be a downright force in 2012. Rey Maualuga is a hard-hitting linebacker, the line is led by Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, and the secondary will see Terrance Newman arrive and Leon Hall return.
That doesn't bode well for the young Gabbert (or his competition, Chad Henne). Jacksonville's defense—now assisted by the addition of Aaron Ross—was pretty good in 2011, but I don't think they'll be quite the same in 2012.
Prediction: Gabbert is picked four times and the Bengals rout the Jaguars, 34-7.
Boy, being a Dolphin fan cannot be easy these days. Miami just cannot catch a break.
They lost the Peyton Manning race. They missed out on Matt Flynn. They will miss out on Andrew Luck and RG3. Their only upsides have been the signings of quarterback David Garrard and wide receiver Legedu Naane—yeah, not exactly huge names.
Give the Dolphins credit though. They were a scrappy team in 2011 that stopped the New York Jets from making the playoffs—amen to them. Still, there are plenty of question marks on offense, especially with the recent departure of Brandon Marshall.
Despite whomever the Dolphins may pick up next week in the draft, Cincinnati's defense shouldn't have many problems. Whether it be Matt Moore, David Garrard, or even Ryan Tannehill, I don't see the black and orange having a lot of issues with the Miami offense.
Moore panics in the pocket and Garrard has missed some substantial on-field time. As for Tannehill, well, I'm just as unconvinced about him as everyone else.
Miami's defense against the run isn't bad, but the Dolphins are awful against the pass.
Prediction: Cincinnati shuts down Miami, despite a good game from Reggie Bush. Cincinnati wins its fourth straight, 24-12.
Given that I've already discussed a game between these two teams, I don't really think I can sum up why it would be any different.
Yeah, they're in Cleveland instead of Cincinnati, but that's about it. Perhaps the presence of Trent Richardson makes a slightly bigger impact in Round 2.
Maybe Cleveland trades up in the draft, gets Ryan Tannehill or Brandon Weeden, and one of them starts instead of Colt McCoy.
Even so, the result is much the same.
Prediction: In a closer game, Cincinnati proves to be too much and beats the Browns, 17-16.
In Week 7, the Cincinnati Bengals will be on prime time for the second time, this time at Paul Brown Stadium. We don't know how many games fans will sell out the stadium for Mike Brown, but you can bet the house that this will be one of them.
The hated Steelers are a team the Bengals haven't beaten since 2009. The Bengals were obliterated at Heinz Field in 2011, losing 35-7. You think Cincinnati is going to want some revenge?
Pittsburgh won't have an entirely new look—at least it doesn't yet. The defense has not lost anyone of notem and they were the best in the league in 2011.
The big loss is Hines Ward, and Mike Wallace may be on his way out too. That would certainly hurt the Steelers' offense, as their depth beyond Wallace consists mainly of veteran Jerricho Cotchery and the youngster, Antonio Brown.
Ben Roethlisberger didn't have many problems with Cincinnati in 2011, but I think that's going to change. It also helps the Bengals that Rashard Mendenhall will likely be missing the 2012 season—that's a big Steeler weapon to be without.
Prediction: In front of the hometown crowd, Cincinnati finally gets some legitimacy by beating Pittsburgh, 24-21.
Oh yes, Peyton Manning and his new teammates will be galloping into Paul Brown Stadium this season. Forgive me for not being so thrilled.
Considering what Tim Tebow was able to do with the Broncos, it's scary to imagine what someone like Manning might do. I guess it remains to be seen if Manning has recovered from the neck surgery, but my prediction is that he'll be just fine.
Denver can certainly be one of the AFC's top dogs in 2012. The Broncos certainly have improved an offense that was very average under Tebow. In addition to Manning, they've brought in tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, as well as former Bengals' receiver Andre Caldwell.
The defense was incredible against the pass, led by rookie Von Miller.
Do I think someone like Leon Hall can keep up with Denver's receivers and Manning's throws?
Do I think a rookie that the Bengals are more than likely to get can do both?
Prediction: Peyton Manning proves to be too much for Cincinnati and the Broncos walk away from the Queen City victors, 31-20.
Isn't this nice? Not only will the Bengals see back-to-back Mannings, but they also face their third consecutive Super Bowl contender on November 11. Such fun in the NFL!
In all seriousness, I don't understand the New York Giants. They were awful on defense and just bad in the running game, but they won the Super Bowl. Incredible.
Eli Manning has solidified his NFL legacy, no questions asked. However, if you look at the 2012 team, you can't help but wonder if some of the same issues will arise. First of all, the team cut Brandon Jacobs, so the running game is looking even thinner than it was.
Secondly, they're still not wonderful on defense—especially against the pass. On the bright side, their recent trade with Cincinnati for linebacker Keith Rivers should address part of that.
It's very possible that Andy Dalton could come in and have a very productive game. He'd have to get by the dominating Jason Pierre-Paul, but he certainly can compete with a so-so Giants' secondary. Further, the running game could prove to be useful here.
Prediction: Shockingly, the defense intercepts Eli Manning three times and the Giants' offense suddenly seems anemic—Cincinnati stuns the Giants, 21-13.
The success of the Kansas City Chiefs is basically going to hinge on how well Jamaal Charles can come back and play. Yes, they signed Peyton Hillis, but he's shown how fragile he can be.
Kansas City has a lot of problems on offense (still), and I don't believe any of them are going to be solved by Matt Cassel. A defense like Cincinnati can definitely rip him apart. Manny Lawson is due for a good season and Geno Atkins wouldn't have many issues getting by a pretty weak offensive line.
I won't waste much time here—unless Kansas City drafts a lot of steals in the draft, I see it being a pretty long year.
Prediction: Kansas City's lackluster offense falls to Cincinnati's powerful attack, 31-6.
This game is going to be the most anticipated matchup of the year for the Queen City.
Yes, we have prime-time games. And yes, there are games against division foes. No match, however, will be more awaited than the one that sees Carson Palmer return to the Jungle to a flurry of boos and jeers.
Cincinnati fans are going to eat Palmer alive on November 25—no mercy will be shown to the former Heisman Trophy winner.
In terms of the actual teams, Oakland has done next to nothing in trying to improve its team. They let Michael Bush walk to free agency, which badly hurts their rushing attack. Their defense was in the bottom 10 and has added no one of note to try to alleviate some of those issues.
Palmer was an interception waiting to happen in his few games in Oakland last season, and against what should be a solid secondary, his incompetence is really going to show.
Prediction: Palmer is sacked five times and picked off at least twice as Cincinnati gets its revenge, mauling the Raiders, 28-14.
It never ceases to amaze me how the San Diego Chargers are consistently good on paper, but then somehow manage to fizzle when they actually play.
Phillip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but you'd never know that, especially after his down 2011 campaign. Now, San Diego has shown Mike Tolbert and Vincent Jackson the door, leaving some gaping holes in its offense.
The Chargers addressed the Jackson situation, signing solid veteran Robert Meachem, as well as Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish. None of them are big names, but they are solid receivers nonetheless.
They'll also almost certainly be drafting a running back, as Ryan Matthews is incapable of carrying the bulk of a game on his shoulders alone.
San Diego's defense is still a big question mark, but there is certainly talent there. Former Bengal Takeo Spikes was a nightmare for opponents last season, recording more than 100 tackles. The Chargers can flush the opposing quarterback out of the pocket very well, especially a young one like Andy Dalton.
Prediction: Cincinnati can't contain Phillip Rivers and Dalton struggles. The Chargers win in San Diego, 30-13.
Despite constant hype for the Cowboys, I see no reason to believe that Cincinnati isn't the better team. First of all, Dallas' offense is not what it's cracked up to be. Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray make up a fierce running duo, but they both struggle with injuries.
Tony Romo is a good quarterback and had a magnificent 2011 season. The problem is he's throwing to Miles Austin and Jason Witten, who—while great assets—may have already had their best seasons. Dez Bryant still has a lot left to give, but that's another article for another time.
Finally, the team just signed Nate Livings, a very under-talented guard. The offense is full of questions.
The defense isn't looking too shabby, but outside of DeMarcus Ware and maybe Brandon Carr, Andy Dalton should be able to handle them.
Prediction: Andy Dalton dazzles as he throws for 300 yards and Cincinnati wins, 27-21.
Call me naive, but I still think the Philadelphia Eagles have a run in them. Maybe not a Super Bowl run, but a run nonetheless.
Despite an awful start that put them out of contention early, the Eagles finished the 2011 season 8-8 and were in the top 10 in both offense and defense. There's clearly a lot there to work with.
With LeSean Coy and Michael Vick, the offense is going to be a run-first attack but Vick also can hurl the ball to DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin.
I think Leon Hall is going to have a rough time trying to hang in there with the speedy Jackson, especially off an Achilles injury.
On defense, Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha will give every offense problems. I know that was predicted last year, but bank on that in 2012, as the team has finally come together.
Prediction: The "Dream Team" finally looks that way, and the Eagles lay waste to Cincinnati, 34-17.
I'm going to be honest here—unless the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a down year (and I mean a really down year), you will not hear me predict many teams to win at Heinz Field.
That is not different here.
Prediction: Pittsburgh wins, 27-10.
As in 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals will close the regular season with a home game against the Baltimore Ravens. If you've been keeping track, I believe I have the Bengals entering the week with 10 wins. If that's true, this game could wind up meaning a whole lot.
Contrary to the first game of the season, I think that the Baltimore defense will long since have crumbled and really deteriorated into shells of its former self. Cincinnati will come out stronger than ever, thus getting back to the postseason.
Prediction: Cincinnati shuts down Joe Flacco, wins 23-7.