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After Years of Disappointment, Bengals Are NFL's Biggest Make-or-Break Story

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 14, 2016

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, right, works the sidelines in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
Frank Victores/Associated Press

We've hit the time of year when television shows wrap for the season before a long summer of rehashed stories we've all seen before.

Once summer turns to fall and the 2016 NFL season gets underway, the AFC North could be treated to another sort of rerun. In each of the past five seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals have won at least nine games and advanced to the playoffs.

And in each of those five campaigns, the Bengals failed to advance past Wild Card Weekend.

Cincinnati Bengals Seasons
YearRecordDiv. FinishWC Opp.Result
20119-7-03rd@HOUL, 31-10
201210-6-02nd@HOUL, 19-13
201311-5-01stSDL, 27-10
201410-5-12nd@INDL, 26-10
201512-4-01stPITL, 18-16
Also made playoffs in 2009 (NYJ, L 24-14)

Given that, the edict this season appears clear. If this year holds more disappointment—if the season finale in 2016 plays out like 2015 (and 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011), then it's likely the Bengals as we know them will be cancelled.

According to Bleacher Report's Jason Cole, there's a "growing impatience" in the Cincinnati ownership with head coach Marvin Lewis. Yes, Lewis has enjoyed as much regular-season success as any coach in team history. No one has held the Bengals job as long as Lewis' 13 years.

But those 13 years include a dismal 0-7 record in the playoffs, a feat no other coach in NFL history has matched:

Gil Brandt @Gil_Brandt

Marvin Lewis now owns worst playoff record among NFL head coaches at 0-7. Passed Jim Mora Sr. (0-6) Saturday night.

The nadir was a devastating 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last January. It was a game the Bengals appeared to have in the bag before one of the biggest postseason meltdowns in recent NFL history.

A meltdown that included several inexcusable personal foul calls that didn't reflect well on the coaching staff at all.

As Bill Bender of the Sporting News reported at the time, after the dust settled over the wreckage of another lost playoff opportunity, Lewis sounded like a man who didn't have an answer for what had just occurred.

"Our guys fought their tails off all year, fought their tail off today," Lewis said. "Got back and went ahead, then we destructed on ourselves—offense and defense together. That's disappointing."

It's the circumstances of that crushing loss that USA Today's Steven Ruiz believes have ratcheted up the pressure on Lewis even more in 2016:

It's hard to see them waiting another year with how last year's playoff exit went down. Cincinnati would have finally snagged that elusive postseason win if not for total lack of discipline. Some of that has to fall on the head coach. Lewis' seat is particularly hot since a winning record won't be enough for him to secure his job. The Bengals need to have some playoff success to justify a 15th year with Lewis at the helm.

It's a hard point to dispute. After all, this wasn't the 9-7 Bengals team that got blown out in Houston in Andy Dalton's rookie season in 2011. Or even the 11-5 division champions who face-planted at home against the San Diego Chargers in 2013.

This was a talented, veteran team that won 12 games and the AFC North. A team that was in the running for a first-round playoff bye right up until season's end. But just like that elusive playoff win, Cincy couldn't seal that deal either, compliments of an overtime loss at Denver in Week 16.

It's been the story of the Cincinnati Bengals throughout their five-year run of playoff disappointments. They beat the teams they're supposed to but can't beat the teams they need to. Over those five years, the Bengals are 52-27-1. It's the NFL's fifth-best record over that span.

And they have squat to show for it. A goose egg in the postseason.

Last year against non-playoff teams, the Bengals were a perfect 9-0. The Terminator of tomato cans.

Against teams that qualified for the postseason? If you count the collapse against their division rivals in the Wild Card Round, they were 3-5.

Now, this is right about the point where fans of the Orange and Black will begin what's become an annual rite on the banks of the Ohio River: pretending the past doesn't matter. That it's irrelevant. They will say this year will be different. That the 2016 Bengals are capable of ending the team's streak of playoff misery once and for all.

To an extent, they are correct. The Bengals are a talented team more than capable of once again winning the AFC North. In fact, per Cole, part of the pressure on Lewis stems from an organizational belief this year's squad is every bit as good as the Bengals teams that represented the AFC in Super Bowl XVI and Super Bowl XXIII.

In the 28-year-old Dalton, the Bengals have a battle-tested young quarterback who has won nearly two-thirds of his 77 regular-season starts.

Of course, in Dalton the Bengals also have a quarterback who has gone 0-4 in the postseason with only one touchdown pass and six interceptions. A quarterback whose playoff passer rating is 30.6 points lower than in the regular season.

Andy Dalton Regular Season vs. Playoffs
Comp. %PYPGTDINTRatingWin %
Reg. Season62.3233.91247388.4.658
Playoffs55.7218.31657.8.000
Per Pro-Football-Reference.com

Those playoff struggles are where the notion that Dalton's broken thumb last year doomed the team dies a quick death. Did it hurt? Yes. But you can't say with any real conviction that AJ McCarron played worse against the Steelers than Dalton would have.

In tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the Bengals have the epitome of a "thunder and lightning" backfield. They also have two young tailbacks who have directly contributed to recent postseason losses with disastrously timed fumbles.

The Bengals have a superstar wide receiver in A.J. Green and one of the NFL's top tight ends in Tyler Eifert. But both the team's No. 2 (Marvin Jones) and No. 3 (Mohamed Sanu) wide receivers left in free agency and will be replaced by journeyman Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd.

Dalton downplayed the turnover in his receiving corps while speaking with Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com:

I think it's huge for us to sign Brandon (LaFell) just from the experience he's got. He's going to help us out a lot. We have the luxury of talking about losing a second and third receiver, but we still have A.J. (Green). We still have Tyler (Eifert). It's not like we're hurting completely at these positions because we've got so much talent there. That's the biggest thing.

He may well be right. Boyd is a talented youngster, and LaFell's had success in both Carolina and New England. But LaFell had trouble staying healthy last season, and the next NFL pass Boyd catches will be the first one.

On defense linebacker Vontaze Burfict has become the living embodiment of all that's both right and wrong in Cincinnati. On one play, the former undrafted free agent looks like a superstar in the making. On the next, he pulls the sort of stunt that got him a three-game suspension to start this season.

The Bengals brought in veteran Karlos Dansby to help offset that absence, and Burfict told Geoff Hobson of the team's website he's been learning what he can from the 13th-year veteran:

I study the linebackers that make plays. I study 4-3 linebackers that play the same nickel packages we play. See how they undercut routes and jam the receivers. I watched Dansby the past two years and he's good at covering and he can come down the line and thump somebody, too.

Burfict doesn't need thumping lessons. He needs lessons in professionalism.

There were other losses in free agency (safety Reggie Nelson and tackle Andre Smith chief among them), but in each of those cases, there was a young player waiting in the wings.

Yes, it's a talented team. As talented from No. 1 to No. 53 as any in the National Football League. Possibly the most balanced team in the NFL. A team with the skill and depth to make it all the way to Houston and Super Bowl LI.

It might not take that to save Lewis' job, but when Brown spoke at the NFL owners' meetings, it didn't take a graduate of the Evelyn Wood School to read between the lines to realize that for the NFL's second-longest tenured head coach, the future is now.

"I commend Marvin's achievements," he said, per Jim Owczarski of Cincinnati.com. "He's done remarkably well with our football team here, in recent years especially. I respect him. I like him personally. He's going to be our coach this year. That's in the bank. Where it goes, we'll see how it plays out."

It isn't going to be especially easy, either. The same Steelers who beat the Bengals twice in three tries last year will be back and improved. Counting on a second straight down season from the Baltimore Ravens is—well, the Ravens just don't have two bad seasons in a row.

If it makes you feel any better, the Cleveland Browns will be awful. So at least there's that.

The scheduling gods, at first glance, appear to have thrown the team a bone. The Bengals' strength of schedule ranks 27th in the NFL. But look a bit closer, and the smiles quickly fade.

A brutal three-game opening stretch (when the team will be without Burfict) against squads that went a combined 32-16 last year kicks things off. There are trips to New England and Houston to play division champions from last year. And there's a jaunt across the Atlantic to face another division champion (the Washington Redskins) in London.

Articles like this have also become something of an annual ritual with the Bengals. Dating back to 2012 we've wondered every year if this is the season it's a postseason win or bust for Marvin Lewis. And to this point at least, he's managed to hang on despite coming up short again and again.

This year, however, the water seems choppier than in seasons past. The clouds are a little darker. And Brown certainly can't be blamed if another shortfall leads him to believe Lewis has taken the team as far as he can—but not far enough.

One way or another, change appears headed for Cincinnatieither in the form of an end to its playoff futility or in the form of a new head coach.

Either way, there isn't a team in the NFL rolling into camp under more pressure to improve in 2016.

Because the better you get, the harder it becomes to get better.

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.

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