The Cincinnati Bengals were good in 2011.
In the preseason, fans and sports "authorities" were predicting a campaign of about three wins. After 16 games, the Bengals posted a respectable 9-7 record and found themselves in the playoffs.
What surprised fans the most about the Bengals last year was the performance of the team despite losing the city's two best playmakers in Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. On defense, stud cornerback Johnathan Joseph departed. The team looked to be in shambles.
How can you trust a rookie quarterback who has questionable arm strength? How can you count on first rounder A.J. Green to perform?
The Bengals historically had been awful in the draft. In 2012, we can look back and see that this Cincinnati team might have had the best drafts of any team since 2010.
Some of the standouts from 2010 are Pro Bowl TE Jermaine Gresham, DE Carlos Dunlap, former WR Jordan Shipley and Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins.
2011 saw Cincinnati draft future Pro Bowlers Green and Andy Dalton as well as G Clint Boling and WR Ryan Whalen.
In 2012, the Bengals found themselves in the same situation as in 2011. Cincinnati was set to lose veteran RB Cedric Benson, number two WR Jerome Simpson and WR Andre Caldwell, not to mention several defenders. They entered the draft once more with confidence and made off like thieves.
Guard Kevin Zeitler, DT Devon Still, WR Mohamed Sanu, DT Brandon Thompson, WR Marvin Jones and LB Vontaze Burfict have all seen playing time this year and have promise.
Zeitler is the long-sought-after run blocker that Cincinnati needed. Still and Thompson are solid backups on the defensive line. Sanu and Jones, despite being fairly underwhelming so far, are part of one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. That just leaves Burfict, who found himself a starting role in just his second game.
Let's not forget the other changes the team has seen. Wide receiver Armon Binns made the team from the practice squad and picked up 66 yards on Sunday, all the while looking like a very capable receiver. Brandon Tate has become a part of the receiving corps as well and is currently listed as No. 1 on the depth chart. He had 71 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 166 yards and a touchdown after two games, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He's looked like everything he was chalked up to be and once he shakes away some more of the dust (he missed the preseason) he'll only look better.
Obviously, the Bengals aren't perfect. Injuries have taken their toll on the offensive line. The defense has looked iffy through two starts, giving up over 300 yards a game.
The schedule is substantially harder than last season with games against teams like the Super Bowl champion Giants, Peyton Manning's Broncos, and the "Dream Team" Eagles. Realizing that the potent Ravens and Steelers must both be played twice only makes it harder for Cincinnati.
The fact of the matter is that 2012 could likely be a down year for the Bengals. Regardless of how the wins and loses play out, this offense and defense are ultimately better. When given time for development and for injuries to heal, the Bengals will no longer be a Cinderella story.
They will be a major force in the NFL.