The Cincinnati Bengals are a prime example of how quickly the culture can change for an NFL franchise. Prior to 2011-2012, the Bengals had not made back-to-back playoff appearances since 1981-1982, when they lost Super Bowl XVI. Now, the Bengals have become a team most expect to make the playoffs year-in and year-out.
They compiled a 19-13 record in 2011 and 2012, but stumbled to defeat against the Houston Texans each year in the Wild Card round, traveling to Houston both times to meet their fate.
The continued development of quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and other offensive weapons, coupled with the arrivals of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard threatened to make the Bengals one of the most complete and dangerous offenses in the NFL.
How are things working out for the Bengals headed into their matchup with the Patriots? Here's a quick recap of their season and some of the biggest challenges that await the Patriots on Oct. 6.
How they got here: We already reviewed the offensive weapons, but the Bengals are quickly learning that as the quarterback goes, so goes the offense. Their offense had a chance to close out a win over the Chicago Bears in Week 1, but went three-and-out on two of their final three drives, with the other drive ending in a Dalton fumble. The Bengals have topped 21 points in just one of their games -- a 34-30 home win over the Packers in a wild game that posed a true test of character for the Bengals, who blew a 14-point lead and then rallied from down 16 points in the third quarter. They are coming off a 17-6 road loss to the Cleveland Browns in which Dalton turned the ball over twice. On the season, Dalton has five touchdowns against six turnovers.
Key cog, offense -- A.J. Green, WR: Virtually a carbon copy of Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, and was taken two spots earlier than Jones in the 2011 NFL draft class. Green runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds, presenting the perfect blend of size and speed on the perimeter -- which is where he spends most of his time going long and winning jump balls. He's not the most physical receiver at the line of scrimmage, but he makes difficult, contested catches look routine. The Patriots will probably single up cornerback Aqib Talib on Green, as he is far and away their best receiving threat.
Key cog, defense -- Geno Atkins, DT: The Bengals know how important Atkins is to their defense, having inked him just prior to the 2013 season for a five-year, $55 million extension. He was dominant for them last year, finishing with 84 quarterback disruptions (53 hurries, 13 hits, 16 combined sacks, two batted passes), and although he had a quiet start to the 2013 season with defenses focused on taking him out of the game, he hit stride against the Browns with four hurries, a hit and two combined sacks. Center Ryan Wendell will have his hands full, and may need help from his fellow interior offensive linemen.
X-factor -- Giovani Bernard, RB: Patriots fans are well aware of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the dependable back that never fumbled in New England, but the Bengals are looking to get more explosive in the backfield with Bernard. Through four games, Bernard has 118 more yards on 10 fewer touches. Bernard average 4.6 yards per carry, while Green-Ellis averages just 2.7. The Patriots have struggled against hybrid backs like Bernard in the past. Will the Bengals finally make the switch to Bernard as their lead back for this game? Or will they show us Albert Einstein's definition of insanity in action?
Stats and notes: Here are some interesting stats and notes on the Bengals.
- Green has been prolific over the course of seasons, but has just two games with 10 catches in his career.
- The Bengals are 4-6 when Andy Dalton throws two or more interceptions.
- The Bengals have scored as many points as they have allowed -- 81 -- and rank 11th in scoring offense and 11th-worst in scoring defense.
- According to Pro Football Focus, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson gets pressure on 12.9 percent of his pass-rush snaps, and grades out as the second-best 4-3 defensive end in the league.
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