You’d have a hard time finding a more unlikely back-to-back playoff team than the Cincinnati Bengals. After all, they play in a tough AFC North division with the battle tested Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, and just two years ago looked dead in the water with veteran quarterback Carson Palmer looking to jump ship.
Instead of sulking with Palmer and allowing that ship to capsize, the Bengals put their faith in head coach Marvin Lewis, who drafted a good but not great passer in Andy Dalton, and got the most out of a moderately talented Bengals team. After two straight playoff appearances and two quick exits, the Bengals head into 2013 with 33/1 Super Bowl odds and one huge looming question: is Andy Dalton going to put the team on his back and take the next step in his development, or do the Bengals need to start over at quarterback?
That is undeniably the most pressing question, especially when you consider the team has an aggressive defense that can rush the passer and stop the run on and elite level, and also boasts one of the top wide receivers in the game in A.J. Green.
In other words, Dalton was already running out of excuses to not elevate his game. Now, after adding explosive rookie running back Giovani Bernard, a potential third down specialist in Rex Burkhead and a versatile tight end in Tyler Eifert, Dalton’s excuses are officially down to zero.
With a revamped ground game, more talent in the passing game than he’s seen in his career and an elite defense to back him up, Dalton will either have to take the next step, or come to the realization (along with the Bengals) that he’s as good right now as he’ll ever be.
As rough as a reality as that sounds, it’s really the main thing keeping the Bengals at bay. If Dalton can put it all together and ascend in his third season, the Bengals could easily shock the world and be the next team to emerge from the AFC North as legit Super Bowl contenders. But until he shows he’s got the goods, few will take these cats seriously.
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