Cincinnati Bengals Are AFC's Sleeping Giant Heading into 2021May 28, 2021
Can the Cleveland Browns finally get over the top and capture the AFC North for the first time in the division's 20-year existence? Can the Baltimore Ravens bounce back and retake the division from the Pittsburgh Steelers? Those two teams have taken turns winning the North in each of the last five seasons, and it's easy to see why the consensus is that both will fight with the upstart Browns for supremacy in 2021.
The odds at DraftKings give Baltimore a slight edge over Cleveland and a sizeable but not overwhelming advantage over the aging Steelers.
Barely considered are the Cincinnati Bengals, who spend more time under the radar than practically any other team in the NFL, and often for good reason.
The notoriously frugal and far-from-nationally-popular Bengals have actually won nearly as many AFC North titles (four) as the Ravens (six) and have experienced wild success in comparison to the Browns, but they're coming off five consecutive losing seasons and they haven't won a playoff game since Vanilla Ice's "To the Extreme" was the top-selling album in America.
But the truth is we're overlooking the Bengals, and we might regret it.
Cincinnati lost its quarterback, 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, to a season-ending knee injury in November. But prior to that, Burrow looked like the real deal and the Bengals were generally competitive.
They were blown out in road games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but in the seven other games that Burrow played in fully, they actually outscored their opponents by four points.
That stretch included a one-score loss in Cleveland despite a 30-point output, a one-score loss to the Indianapolis Colts on the road despite scoring 27 points, a field-goal loss to the Browns despite scoring 34 points, a 23-23 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and a resounding 11-point victory over the playoff-bound Tennessee Titans.
Their record didn't show it then or at the end of the season, but the Burrow-led Bengals were often respectable in 2020.
Now, Burrow's healthy again.
"He's on track for full go for start of the season," Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who repaired the torn ACL and MCL in Burrow's left knee in December, wrote in a text message to ESPN's Adam Schefter earlier this month. "He's doing all the work. He's worked his tail off and been an amazingly mature participant in his recovery. He's focused and great to work with."
The 24-year-old phenom from LSU was on the field for Cincinnati's organized team activities this week, and veteran wide receiver Tyler Boyd liked what he saw.
"He's going to lead us to the Promised Land," Boyd said of Burrow, per Geoff Hobson of the team's official website. "Joe looks great. He looks like he's ready to play a game right now. I'm not worried about Joe. He makes magic when his number's called."
He did exactly that with limited support from a weak offensive line and a pass-catching corps in transition in 2020, completing 65.3 percent of his passes while posting a 13-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 10 starts. He also added 142 yards and three scores as a rusher. This even though nearly five percent of the passes he threw were dropped and he was sacked on more than seven percent of his dropbacks, the 10th-highest mark in the league.
But now? He and his teammates should benefit from more quality time together in a much more normal offseason, and his supporting cast is stronger.
That starts with Bengals No. 5 overall pick Ja'Marr Chase, who made magic with Burrow during LSU's historic 2019 season.
Burrow completed 76.3 percent of his passes for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns to just six interceptions during that Heisman-winning campaign, and Chase accounted for nearly one-third of those yards and exactly one-third of those touchdowns as a receiver.
He opted out in 2020 but was a unanimous All-American, a first-team All-SEC wideout and the winner of the Fred Biletnikoff Award before Burrow went pro.
"Obviously me and Ja'Marr have a good rapport, (we're) good friends, teammates," Burrow told the media this week. "I think he's going to bring an explosiveness to our offense."
Combine that with the steady Boyd (who's coming off three consecutive 800-plus-yard seasons) in the slot and sophomore second-round sensation Tee Higgins (who went over 900 yards with six touchdowns as a rookie) out wide, and throw in Joe Mixon's talent at running back, and it's easy to imagine the Cincy offense exploding in 2021.
The line remains a question mark, but left tackle Jonah Williams has All-Pro potential as a third-year first-round pick. There's no denying his talent, and this could be a breakout year after he missed his rookie campaign due to a shoulder injury and was forced to catch up during a 2020 offseason that was severely limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, he surrendered just three sacks and took just two penalties as a sophomore, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Really, last year was his rookie year," new offensive line coach Frank Pollack said, according to Hobson. "It's always a learning curve for every rookie. I'm real excited about teaching him some new things that he can add to his tool box. He's a smart player. He's very technique aware. He takes pride in being a technician. He's got great feet, great balance. He can use his hands independently. He's got a lot of tools to work with. His better day are ahead. Nothing but up for Jonah Williams."
The Bengals also brought in reliable veteran Riley Reiff to take over at right tackle and invested a second-round pick in interior offensive lineman Jackson Carman, so there's a heck of a lot more there than there was in 2020.
"In my opinion," Pollack said, "we'll make some people proud."
The defense was a problem last year as well, but that unit should also be better. They lost veterans Carl Lawson and William Jackson III on the edge and at cornerback, respectively, but new pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson broke out with 13.5 sacks last year with the New Orleans Saints, incoming rookie edge Joseph Ossai was a massive steal in Round 3, Chidobe Awuzie is a couple of years younger with a similar ceiling as Jackson and they upgraded by adding former Steelers cover man Mike Hilton in the slot.
They also stole Larry Ogunjobi from the division-rival Browns up front, and 24-year-old safety Jessie Bates III looks as though he's becoming a star before our eyes.
Of course, it still comes down to Burrow. But the stars are starting to look quite aligned, and there's been something about second-year quarterbacks of late.
MVP honors went to sophomore signal-callers in 2018 (Patrick Mahomes) and 2019 (Lamar Jackson), and Kyler Murray became a Pro Bowler as a second-year starter in 2020. Carson Wentz was also an MVP candidate when the Eagles won the Super Bowl in his second season, and Jared Goff broke out in a Pro Bowl sophomore campaign that same year.
That could be a good omen for Justin Herbert with the Los Angeles Chargers or Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins, but Burrow looks like a good bet.
Speaking of bets, is that enough to take +2000 odds and pick the Bengals to shock the world and win the North? Maybe, maybe not. But keep in mind that the playoff field includes about a handful of surprises every year, that said field has expanded to 14 and that the young Bengals could benefit from that and an extended regular season.
Yet the odds are still heavily stacked against them making the postseason.
It's something to keep in mind.
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Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.