The Cincinnati Bengals entered the 2011-12 NFL season ranked by ESPN as the league's absolute worst franchise. Following a dismal offseason in which they lost their starting quarterback, a standout cornerback, a veteran defensive end and two premier wide receivers, preseason expectations for this year's team were very, very low.
Today, however, things aren't so bad in Cincinnati.
Four weeks into the regular season, the Bengals are 2-2 after an impressive victory over the previously unbeaten Buffalo Bills. Call me crazy, but this young Bengals squad may just be onto something.
It's early, but here are five reasons the Cincinnati Bengals should not be overlooked this season.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't done anything spectacular season, but he also hasn't done much wrong. Aside from Carolina's Cam Newton, Dalton may be the most impressive rookie quarterback in the league.
He isn't flashy, but he is certainly solid. Coming out of college, Dalton was praised for his ability to manage the game, and in his short time in the NFL he has been able to do just that.
Through four weeks of regular season play, Dalton has thrown for 868 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Not outstanding numbers by any means, but certainly respectable.
He seems to be improving week by week and considering the talented young receiving corps he has around him, it's hard to think Dalton won't continue to make strides throughout the season.
Try the Bengals.
Through four weeks of play, Cincinnati's defense is ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed per game (275.5), second in yards allowed per play (4.4) and sixth in points allowed per game (18.5).
Not bad for a unit that lost three leaders in Johnathan Joseph, Dhani Jones and Antwan Odom over the offseason.
It's only Week 5, but if Cincinnati's defense can keep up the good work, they could go a long way toward making the Bengals a legitimate threat this season.
When Cincinnati selected Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick in this year's NFL draft, they hoped he would become a top receiving threat and effectively fill the gap left by the departure of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
Through four games, Green has tallied 19 receptions, 312 yards and two touchdowns while quickly becoming Andy Dalton's go-to target down the field.
When you pair Green's productivity with that of Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham and Andre Caldwell, Cincinnati boasts one of the most promising young receiving corps in the game today.
If Dalton can continue to grow more comfortable in the passing game, the Bengals' offense—though very young—has the potential to be scary good.
Cedric Benson has certainly had his share of ups and downs throughout his career, but over the past few seasons he has finally been able to establish himself as a legitimate NFL running back. This season, he has rushed for 348 yards and looks to be well on his way to a third straight 1,000-yard season.
In addition to Benson, the Bengals also have some solid depth at RB. Both Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard have been used regularly, and each has been effective at times.
Benson, like all starting running backs, is bound to wear down in the later weeks of the season. When he does, Cincinnati will be glad to have the depth that they do at the running back position.
Cincinnati's next three opponents—Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Seattle—have a combined record of 2-9. If the Bengals can manage to pick up a few wins over the span of the next four weeks (Week 7 is a Bye), they could be in great position heading into a tough Week 9 matchup at Tennessee.
As always, Pittsburgh and Baltimore will present tough divisional matchups, but with winnable games against Cleveland, Arizona and St. Louis still left to play, it isn't out of the question that Cincinnati could be in the mix for a Wild Card berth come season's end.