The Bengals moved up in ESPN Power Rankings from #22 in Week 9 to #11 heading into the playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals 2012 season was full of highs and lows.
It started with an embarrassing loss to the Ravens on Monday Night to start the season. They followed that up with three straight wins before losing three in a row heading into the Bye Week. After the week off, Cincinnati rallied the troops and capped their season with a 7-2 run to finish 10-6.
Throughout the ups and downs, many of players stepped up when needed. Some were consistent all year, while others tailed off. It begs the question, who was the Bengals Most Valuable Player this year?
Given the defensive resurgence the second half of the season, it would seem fitting that a defensive player be selected Bengals MVP. However, on the other side of the ball, A.J. Green had a record-setting season earning him a start in the Pro Bowl later this month.
However, Green can't catch the ball without someone throwing it to him. Dalton can't throw without protection and the passing game is completely ineffective without a sound running attack.
Arguments can be made for myriad Bengals players to earn MVP, but here are my top five picks.
Kevin Huber ranked third in the NFL for punts inside the 20.
Special teams players seldom get recognition for their efforts unless its for a big block or a return for touchdown. Occasionally, an exceptional kicker like Adam Vinatieri will come along, but rarely are punters spotlighted.
A large part of why the Bengals' defense was able to succeed this year was because of their favorable field position. Huber ranks third in the NFL in punts inside the 20 and is tied for 24th in touchback percentage.
Huber's percentage of punts inside the 20 yard line was 44.5 percent in 2012. His percentage of touchbacks was 8.6.
The coverage team helped Huber as well. For several weeks this season, Huber led the NFL in net punting yards. The Bengals coverage team forced 14 fair catches and an average of 7.8 yards per return.
Huber's ability to alter field position was a huge asset to the Bengals this year. His contribution wasn't worthy of the number 1 spot, but Huber's 46.6 yards per punt ranks him fifth in the 2012 Bengals MVP running.
Rey Maualuga finished second on the team in tackles in 2012.
Head coach Marvin Lewis appointed LB Rey Maualuga with a "C" on his jersey just before the Oakland game. Maualuga and quarterback Andy Dalton had earned the honors the four games prior and arrived at the locker room prior to the Raiders' game to find a "C" embroidered into their jerseys and the corresponding title of captain.
"To get that 'C' on my jersey is unbelievable," Maualuga began. "I came here, saw that 'C' and was at a loss for words."
Maualuga lived up to his captain status this year. He finished the year with 132 tackles, including the post season. His total ranks second on the Bengals behind rookie LB Vontaze Burfict who had 133. Maualuga, however, is in MVP talks because he calls the shots on defense.
Maualuga is the player with the green dot on his helmet signifying that coaches can communicate to him through his helmet. He is defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's coach on the field, an admirable and stunning turnaround from the performances that warranted Zimmer to refer to Maualuga as "average."
Maualuga's presence had a lot to do with the Bengals' amazing defense the latter half of the season. While he mans in the middle and holds more responsibility than any of his defensive teammates, Maualuga still finishes fourth in the running for Bengals MVP.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton is showing the signs of developing into an elite quarterback. Despite his sometimes average numbers and the lack of flash, The Red Rifle wins games. He did it in college at TCU and now he's doing it with the Bengals.
Dalton has now played in 32 NFL regular season games. In that time, he has thrown for a total of 47 touchdowns, 20 as a rookie in 2011 and 27 in 2012. The only two players to throw for more touchdowns in their first 32 regular season games are Dan Marino and Peyton Manning.
Dalton also expanded the NFL tandem of quarterbacks with 20 TDs in each of their first two seasons. Previously, only Manning and Marino had achieved this. Now, Dalton has too.
Dalton was also lethal in the red zone this year. When inside his opponent's 20 yard line, Dalton was 38 for 70, 260 yards and 20 TD. What hurt Dalton and the Bengals' offense was its performance the fourth quarter. In the last three games of the season, the Bengals only scored touchdowns on 25 percent of its red zone appearances, less than half of the 53.5 percent they averaged over the course of the season.
If there's one thing Dalton must work on this off-season, it's identifying holes and receivers sooner. Several times this season, Dalton failed to see openings as quickly as they appeared and it resulted in more contested passes, tougher catches for receivers and sometimes unnecessarily violent hits.
Dalton's progress in his first two seasons has been nothing short of a ray of joy for Bengals fans. His recognizable red hair and stoic demeanor has sparked a flame of optimism in the Queen City. Yet, despite his performance in 2012, I've got him third in the Bengals MVP race.
Geno Atkins anchored the Bengals stout defensive line.
In the 2012 regular season, the Bengals defense set a franchise record with 51 sacks. Of those 51, the defensive line accounted for 43. Leading the defensive line was Geno Atkins with 12.5.
Those 12.5 sacks tied him for sixth in the NFL. However, Atkins ranks first in sacks by an interior lineman. The next closest is Lions' DT Ndamukong Suh with eight.
Because of his performance this year, Atkins was selected to start in the Pro Bowl for the AFC Team. This will mark his second appearance in Hawaii but his first time as a starter.
Atkins fueled the resurgence of the Bengals defense the second half of the season. During that time Atkins racked up 26 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
The disadvantage of the defensive line, or either line for that matter, is that statistics don't capture many of their positive plays. Geno's effect has gone way beyond the 12.5 sacks recorded. Geno's effect has allowed for fellow defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson to flourish, combining for 17.5 sacks.
Atkins' impact can also be felt from his defensive teammates behind him. Atkins' presence allowed for linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict to combine for 265 tackles behind him.
Although his statistics don't jump off the page, Atkins certainly made a case for himself as a defensive presence, enough to start in the Pro Bowl. And as one of two Bengals starting in the Pro Bowl, he earns the runner-up spot for the Bengals MVP.
AJ Green pulled in five catches for 80 yards against the Texans.
With 103 catches for 1,430 yards and 11 TD through the 2012 post season, Adriel Jeremiah Green earns the honor of 2012 Bengals MVP.
Of all players on the Bengals' roster, no single player changed opposing teams' game plans like A.J. Green. His precise route running, exceptional speed, huge wingspan and hawk-like ability to track down jump balls make A.J. one of the most unique blends of talent in the NFL.
Green's performance this year earned him a starting spot in the Pro Bowl opposite Texans WR Andre Johnson. Throughout much of the season, Green led the AFC in receiving touchdowns and finished tied for second with Patriots' TE Rob Gronkowski behind Broncos' WR Eric Decker.
Green sustained one of the most impressive streaks in NFL history this year. For nine straight games, he had a receiving touchdown, a franchise single-season record. In the last 48 years, only two players have had a streak of nine games or longer with a touchdown reception: A.J. Green in 2012 and in 1987 Jerry Rice reeled off 12 straight.
Green's 162 catches in his first two regular seasons, ranks him second in NFL history. Former-Dallas Cowboys WR and current NFL Network Analyst Michael Irvin had nothing but praises for A.J. Green and his potential, "When I look at what he’s done and what he possibly can become, he’s already one of the top receivers in this league. There is no way he fully understands all he can be. A.J. has an opportunity to be the best in the league.”
His teammates have similar tributes to the young superstar. QB Andy Dalton had this to say, "You throw him up balls that you wouldn’t throw to another receiver, because he’s going to beat his man and come down with it."
More often than not, he did come down with it. He brought life to a city that needed a resurgence and a return to playoffs, hope to a franchise that needed it and, for that, A.J. Green is my Bengals MVP 2012.
Benjarvus Green-Ellis rushed for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns this year. He also had four games in which he amassed 100 yards, three of which came in a row when the Bengals needed it. However, each of his three career fumbles (two lost) occurred this year for the Bengals moving him out of the MVP talks.
Vontaze Burfict led the Bengals with 127 tackles this season. Had he played for any other defensem he would have been a serious contender for Bengals MVP. However, the defensive depth of the Bengals worked against him in the running.
Josh Brown joined the team just days before the Bengals played the Cowboys when K Mike Nugent sustained an injury. Against the Cowboys, Brown went 4 of4 including a 52-yarder. Brown went on to finish the season 11 of 12, with his only miss coming from 52 yards out at Heinz Field.
Michael Johnson finished second on the team with 11.5 sacks. He may have been the unsung hero of the team this year largely due to Atkins' dominating performance inside. However, anyone with 11.5 sacks deserves to at least be mentioned as an MVP.