It's probably fair to call this a breaking-point season for the Cincinnati Bengals. Or, at the very least, their continually embattled quarterback.
The Bengals, equipped with a cabal of young talent, made the playoffs for the third straight time in 2013, this time winning their third AFC North crown in the last nine seasons. And, for the third straight season, Cincinnati was unceremoniously dumped from the postseason by a team many expected it to beat. Those disappointments have not only instigated murmurs about head coach Marvin Lewis, whose seat has been warm seemingly for a decade now, but also Andy Dalton.
From a historical perspective, Dalton has been a home run second-round quarterback. Through his first three NFL seasons, Dalton has 26 more touchdown passes than any other second-rounder in league history, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. His quarterback rating overall ranks behind only Colin Kaepernick and Boomer Esiason among signal-callers with at least 20 starts. He's a very good quarterback all things considered.
The question is whether he's good enough.
With an 0-3 playoff record and consistently miserable performances throughout, Dalton has already garnered the reputation of a quarterback good enough to get you there but not good enough to get you over the hump. Russell Wilson's two-year ascent into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback only made the spotlight brighter.
Lacking a fat long-term contract extension, Dalton is primed to hit unrestricted free agency next offseason, when he will be just 27 years old. Negotiations have started on a long-term deal, but it will be interesting to see how this situation plays out.
"We are going to try to get something done but I don’t know if we are going to be able to or not," president Mike Brown told reporters in March. "At some point we are going to have to do something more than just let everyone else leave waiting to get something done with that situation."
The Bengals spent their offseason mainly focused on keeping the band together. They re-signed wide receiver Brandon Tate and locked up Domata Peko while bringing in veteran Jason Campbell to back up Dalton, but it's been mostly a quiet run. Cincinnati's satisfaction with stasis has led to concern among fans, mostly because the front office did little to replace players lost.
Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins both signed big deals with the Buccaneers. Likewise, Andrew Hawkins left for the Cleveland Browns. You may say the Bengals were already loaded and poised to replace those guys, and that may be true.
But all that's going to do is put more pressure on a roster with its feet already to the fire. With the NFL announcing the Bengals' full slate of games, we now have a good idea of the road they'll have to travel for a fourth straight playoff appearance.
|2014 Cincinnati Bengals Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sept. 7||at Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sept. 14||vs. Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sept. 21||vs. Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 5||at New England Patriots||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|6||Oct. 12||vs. Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||FOX|
|7||Oct. 19||at Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 26||vs. Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 2||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Nov. 6||vs. Cleveland Browns||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|11||Nov. 16||at New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 23||at Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Nov. 30||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Dec. 7||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 14||at Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 22||vs. Denver Broncos||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|17||Dec. 28||at Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
If last season was any indication, the Bengals owe the NFL schedule bots some dap. Cincinnati is tied for the 23rd-hardest schedule using last season's regular-season records, an admittedly flawed way to view these things in April. Remember, at this time last year, we were discussing how dreadful the AFC West was going to be.
Things vary wildly in 16-game samples.
As it is, the Bengals' trek doesn't look all that concerning. The NFC North does its home-and-home bidding against the NFC South and AFC South this season, the latter of which certainly led to some high-fives in the greater Ohio area. The Texans have enough talent in their coffers to be a poor man's version of 2013's Chiefs—the No. 1 team vaulting suddenly into contention—but this still looks like the weakest division in football.
Indianapolis' two-season foray into deep-pocketed free agency has come back with some of the most head-scratching moves in the league. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson seems to have a Milwaukee Bucks-esque affinity for overpaying entirely mediocre talent. Tennessee hired Ken Whisenhunt in a move that would theoretically improve the team's outlook if anyone outside the Locker family had faith Jake could stay healthy and productive.
Baltimore should be improved after a nightmare Super Bowl defense in 2013, but mediocre offensive talent and a litany of off-the-field troubles have dogged its offseason. Pittsburgh looks primed to go from mediocre last season to downright bad. The Steelers' cap mismanagement is finally starting to do a number on their roster.
The Browns, well...at least they have Draft Day.
I wouldn't go as far as to say Cincinnati is a stone-cold lock for the AFC North title. After all, the next time this franchise wins back-to-back division championships will be the first. It is, however, hard to imagine any of these rosters stacking up to the Bengals side by side. If they don't repeat, the fault will either lie with injuries or coaching.
Outside the division, the two most important games are the most obvious. Assuming the Bengals plan on being among the AFC's elite in 2014—and I'm just going to boldly step out and say they do—there is no litmus test better than games against the two finalists from last season.
The Broncos, at least in April, are a loaded cyborg of football excellence. Not only do they have Peyton Manning coming off the finest statistical season of his career and fully cleared for another season under center, but their offseason was also spent shoring up whatever holes remained on the roster. DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward should give Denver's once-shaky defense a solid foundation, while Emmanuel Sanders should fill in nicely as a third receiver, replacing Eric Decker.
Plus, I don't know if you know this or not, but Manning is very good at throwing the football. Denver and Cincinnati did not play during the 2013 regular season. Their most recent meeting was a 31-23 win for the Broncos two years ago.
The Patriots, on the other hand, may be out to exact some revenge. Cincinnati's 13-6 victory over the perennial AFC East champs last season was seen by some as a seminal moment for the Bengals, who won their next three games to start 6-2. The home-road status will change this time around, and given that all five of Cincy's losses last season came away from the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium, the odds may ever be in the Patriots' favor.
(Yes, I watched The Hunger Games. Shut up.)
The AFC North's traipsing through the NFC South should also give Cincinnati some trouble. The Saints are consistently among the NFL's most dangerous home teams, and a road meeting with Tampa Bay (and its XFL jerseys) might be more difficult now that a professional coaching staff is in house. Hosting the Falcons, a classic positive-regression team, and the Panthers, bound to fall from their 12-4 record a season ago, won't be a gallop through the park.
Nevertheless, when taking stock of where Cincinnati shapes up among its contemporaries, things could be a lot worse. The AFC North is probably one of the three weakest divisions in football, with the lack of improvement from Pittsburgh and Baltimore leaving open a clear path. Anything less than matching last season's 11-5 record is a pretty strong disappointment.
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