Two years in a row, the Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs and defied predictions of experts and critics. The 10-6 Bengals had been guaranteed a postseason after defeating their rival Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, but wrapping up the season with a win against Baltimore (the first such win for Andy Dalton) is the cherry on top of the whole year.
Let's take a look at what has made Cincinnati so successful this season.
Andy Dalton avoided a sophomore slump, and A.J. Green continued to make his claim for being the league's best WR in just his second professional year, but the offense was far from perfect. While Dalton's accuracy, yards and TD passes all increased this year, the quarterback out of TCU also saw his turnovers rise, throwing 16 interceptions and losing four fumbles.
The offensive line seemed ruined by injuries with Travelle Wharton and Kyle Cook going down in the preseason, but there were a few players who really stepped up. Undrafted free agent Trevor Robinson performed much better than expected in his chances and rookie Kevin Zeitler quietly performed at a high level. That said, the Bengals let Dalton get sacked 46 times, third most in the league.
The running game was the subject of much scrutiny this season. With the departure of Cedric Benson, the team was counting on a good show from the newly signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis had been impressive for New England, and Cincinnati was hoping to get just as much out of him.
Looking back at the whole season, it seems he's been rather disappointing. Despite some good showings, Green-Ellis was inconsistent at best, and the team never knew how he was going to perform from week to week. When he was brought in, the team was hoping for someone better than Benson. The reality has been a near carbon copy as evident from their stats:
Cincinnati needs much more from him next season.
The receiving core is the most refreshing part to critique. After a stellar draft, the Bengals brought in Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu to compete for the No. 2 receiver spot along with Armon Binns and Brandon Tate. Binns was waived, and Tate didn't see many chances, but Sanu and Jones really stepped up.
Sanu was the first to make his case, bringing in four TD catches in three games and showing some versatility in the backfield. If not for injury, he'd have had a lock on the No. 2 role. In Sanu's absence, it was Jones who shone, bringing in 10 catches in the last two games and grabbing his first NFL TD.
A.J. Green is untouchable—another dominant year for the young receiver. He came very close to the 100th-reception mark and found a streak of 10 games with TDs.
Is it too soon to say Cincinnati has the NFL's best defensive line? The NFL leaders in sacks were led yet again by Geno Atkins who has rapidly risen in status following a 12.5-sack year. Around Atkins, Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks) and Wallace Gilberry (6.5 sacks) were menaces for opposing quarterbacks while Carlos Dunlap (6 sacks) recovered from an off-2011.
Undrafted linebacker Vontaze Burfict undoubtedly left his mark as he led the team in tackles. Unfortunately, Rey Maualuga did nothing to dispel the doubts about his ability, and if a replacement arrives, he will most certainly be seeing the door.
The secondary, which entered the year looking like it would be one of the best in the NFL, suffered more than its fair share of injuries. Despite the injuries, though, Adam Jones had a career year on both defense and special teams. Leon Hall, when healthy, looked sharp as ever. Terrence Newman, upon finding his footing, looked good when called upon.
The questions surrounding rookie Dre Kirkpatrick were not answered as the first-rounder out of Alabama was featured in just five games due to injuries. Shaun Prater also saw injuries mar his first year.
The safety position has been woeful for Cincinnati, and their hand was forced into bringing back Chris Crocker who performed well above expectations. Reggie Nelson and Nate Clements looked good, although they'd prefer to have Clements at his natural CB role.
Behind them, Taylor Mays continued to show why San Francisco didn't want him with his overall sloppy play, even when on special teams. George Iloka was, you guessed it, injured nearly all season, so it's hard to say how he'll perform at the professional level.
Special Teams: B+
The Bengals special teams were pretty average on the whole, but there were some players who stood out, for better or worse. Brandon Tate continued to be featured as the main return man, despite his poor decision-making. Tate's a good player, but when you can't shake the feeling that if it was always up to him, he'd return everything that came his way, even when he's nine yards back in his end zone.
Adam Jones was nothing short of brilliant in his opportunities and will likely see more chances to return punts if re-signed. He was seventh in the league in average return distance.
Mike Nugent wasn't spectacular this season, but following his injury, free agent Josh Brown really did well, making five field goals after being on the team for just two days. He missed just one of his 12 field-goal attempts.
Kevin Huber looked good, not great this season and has seen his punt average increase by a few yards. He's not one of the best in the league, but he looked to be improving this season and showed that with the placing of his punts.
Overall Performance: A
The Bengals finished 10-6, but looking back at the season, they could have easily finished 13-3 with wins over the Browns, Dolphins and Cowboys. They weren't perfect, but locking up a playoff spot with a win against their rivals is a thunderous way to enter the postseason.
The team is loaded with young individual stars and several "no name" players who have been quietly dominant. The Bengals might not get much love from the media, but they played a good season and have set themselves up for a great future.