Cincinnati Bengals' Playoff Hopes Rely on Strong Play in a Tough AFC North

Dan ParzychSenior Writer IMay 29, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 21:  Carson Palmer #9  of the Cincinnati Bengals talks in the huddle as teammates Chad 'Ocho Cinco' Johnson #85 and T.J. Houshmandzadeh #84 listen during the first half of the game against the New York Giants on September 21, 2008 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If the Cincinnati Bengals have any hope of making the playoffs this season, they will need to figure out a way to perform better against the rest of the teams in their AFC North Division.

Last season was a season to forget for the Bengals as they finished with a 4-11-1 record. What's even more disappointing is the Bengals finished 1-5 in their division, with their lone win coming off of a 14-0 victory against the Cleveland Browns in Week 16.

The NFL playoffs consists of 12 teams. Six teams from the NFC and six teams from the AFC. Four of the six spots in each conference are for each division winner within the conference. This leaves two spots open for wild card teams in each conference.

Obviously, it is possible for a team to make the playoffs without winning their division. In 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first sixth-seeded team to win a Super Bowl. The following year, the New York Giants won as a fifth seed.

Both the Steelers and the Giants were able to clinch Super Bowl victories without winning their division. Instead, they were able to make their magical playoff runs as wild card teams. Unfortunately, sometimes clinching a wild card spot can be more difficult than it seems. Just ask any member of the New England Patriots last season, who finished 11-5.

If the NFL playoffs were determined by final standings, the Patriots would have clinched the sixth seed. Since each division winner is guaranteed a playoff spot, the Patriots season ended early and the AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers, who finished 8-8, found themselves in an opening round matchup with the Indianapolis Colts.

Last season was a prime example of how important it can be for teams to get into the playoffs by winning their division. With the level of competition between teams in the AFC, winning the AFC West may be the best way for the Bengals to be able to play in January.

If that's the case, do the Bengals have what it takes to beat the rest of the teams in the AFC West?

Over the last six seasons, 92 percent of the teams in the playoffs had a .500 record or better in division play. The only three teams to make the playoffs with a record below .500 in their division were the Dallas Cowboys (2006), Jacksonville Jaguars (2007), and Philadelphia Eagles (2008). Each team finished 2-4 within their division that season.

So just how tough is the AFC North? For starters, last year's AFC Championship game consisted of the Baltimore Ravens squaring off against their division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers went on to win 23-14 en route to winning Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals. They became the first team in NFL history to win six Super Bowl titles.

If the Bengals want any shot at the AFC North title this season, they need to figure out a way to stop the Steelers and Ravens. Especially after the way these two teams finished at the top of the league when it came to defense.

Last season, the Steelers and Ravens had the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked defense in the league. As far as points are concerned, the Steelers surrendered 13.9 points per game while the Ravens gave up 15.2 points per game.

In the two division matchups last season, the Steelers manhandled the Bengals. In two contests, Big Ben and company outscored Cincy by a combined 65-20. The same can be said about the Baltimore Ravens, who outscored the Bengals 51-13.

Unfortunately for the Bengals, the Steelers and Ravens should be just as good as last year considering their starters stay healthy. Also, let's not rule out the possibility of the Cleveland Browns returning to their same form from two years ago.

In 2007, the Cleveland Browns finished with a 10-6 record and only missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker with the Tennessee Titans. Derek Anderson had a breakout year at quarterback. Braylon Edwards was emerging as one of the top wide receivers in the league.

Even Jamal Lewis was running at the top of his game like he did a few years ago when he was with the Ravens.

Many analysts expected them to bounce back in 2008 and compete as one of the top teams in the AFC. Instead of another season with the team competing for a playoff spot, the Browns struggled last season and finished with a 4-12 record.

In the offseason, the Browns fired head coach Romeo Crennell after failing to reach the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. They also traded the rights of tight end Kellen Winslow to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Whether or not the Browns will be competitive in the AFC North this season is still up in the air. The franchise has had so many distractions during the offseason that it's hard to imagine this team being a factor in 2009.

Not only did they trade arguably one of the best tight ends in football this offseason, but wide receiver Donte Stallworth is dealing with manslaughter charges after killing a pedestrian with his car while driving under the influence.

Not to mention the Browns continue to try and figure out their situation at quarterback. Whether Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts at quarterback, nobody will know what to expect from the Browns until September rolls around.

It's obvious the Bengals have quite the work set out for them if they have any intention of making the playoffs this season. If they want to have any shot at playing in the postseason, the team needs to perform well against all three of their division rivals.

The Bengals shouldn't have issues with defeating the Browns this season. However, the Steelers and Ravens could cause trouble for Carson Palmer and company.

Even though the Bengals were swept by the Ravens last season, they had success against them the previous season. In 2007, the Bengals defeated the Ravens both times, 27-20 and 21-7.

The Steelers on the other hand are a different story. The Bengals haven't defeated Pittsburgh since the third week of the season in 2006. They have lost five straight matchups to the defending Super Bowl champions.

On paper, this current Bengals roster looks just as good as the roster that won the AFC North title in 2005, if not better.

The Bengals finished the 2005 season with an 11-5 record and their first playoff birth in 15 seasons. The team found themselves with a first-round matchup against their division rival Pittsburgh. All the Bengals fans remember what happened from there.

Many still believe the Bengals would have defeated the Steelers if Kimo von Oelhoffen hadn't hit Carson Palmer on the first play of the game that resulted in torn ligaments in his left knee.

Still, 2005 was a big year for the Cincinnati Bengals after they proved to the rest of the league that they had what it takes to compete in the AFC North. One of the main reasons why they were able to clinch the AFC North title and reach the playoffs is because of their 5-1 record against teams in their division.

If Carson Palmer can stay healthy, there is no reason why him and the rest of the Bengals can't compete in the AFC North. The offense may have lost T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but former Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles should perform just as well as Housh, if not better.

The Bengals offense is loaded with weapons for 2009. Along with Ochocinco and Coles, the team has seen major improvement in wide receiver Chris Henry, who appears to be turning a new leaf in life after numerous incidents with the law.

Running back Cedric Benson will begin his first full season as a starter for the Bengals, after finishing the last two games of 2008 with 282 yards rushing. Not to mention the drafting of Andre Smith from Alabama should help improve an offensive line that finished third last year as far as sacks given up.

The AFC North has the potential to be one of the toughest divisions in football, depending how each of the four teams perform this season. The Steelers and Ravens should be strong once again as they look to live up to the same level they played at last season.

There is no reason to doubt the Bengals won't compete in the AFC North this year. With a healthy Palmer and an offense loaded with wide receivers, the Bengals could find themselves competing with the rest of their division like they did in 2005.

For all we know, this year's Cincinnati Bengals could turn into last year's Arizona Cardinals (besides the fact about playing in a weak division).


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