Can the Bengals Return to the Super Bowl?

First off, let’s see how the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl in the first place for the 2021 season. The 2021 season featured a 17 game slate as opposed to the traditional 16 game, and the Bengals ended the regular season with a 10-7 record which was good enough for 1st in the AFC North. In their division both the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns had losing records, while the Pittsburgh Steelers were just half a game behind. So while it might seem like the division was a bit weaker with the Bengals being the only 10-win team in the division, and every single other division in the league had a team with at least 11 wins, it is very noteworthy the AFC North was the only division where no team had 7 or fewer wins. 

The Bengals only had two losses all season decided by more than 1 score. They had half a dozen wins decided by two or more scores. They fought hard all season and kept themselves in most games. It all starts with the O-line. Burrow had 51 sacks taken and threw 14 INT’s in the regular season. He took another 19 sacks in the playoffs over just four games. His total of 70 sacks over the entire season ranks 3rd all time. The best way to fix that is to improve the O-line. The Bengals made three additions on the offensive line in the offseason (not including rookie Cordell Volson whom they took in the 4th round). They signed Ted Karras to play center, Alex Cappa to play right guard and La’el Collins who is expected to play at right tackle being the biggest name of the three. The revamped offensive line should help Burrow to take fewer sacks, help Joe Mixon in the run game, and make the passing game even more potent. Mixon had a somewhat average season as far as yards go averaging 4.1yds/carry. He did still manage over 1200 yards and over a dozen touchdowns on under 300 carries. What a rookie season for Ja’Marr Chase! A handful of 100 yard games and a couple 200 yard games vs the Chiefs and the Ravens (two very big teams in the AFC in the past several years with both teams’ quarterbacks winning a league MVP). He would end up scoring 13 TD’s and 1455 yards, and most impressively with an 18 yard per catch average. The trio of Burrow at QB, Mixon at RB and Chase at WR is quite solid. All three did a good job not coughing up fumbles as well. 

Burrow did have some interceptions but that is easily offset by his 34 passing TD’s (a 2.43 TD:INT ratio). A completion rate over 70%, 4,611 yards passing and a passer rating of 108.3 which was second in the NFL only to league MVP Aaron Rodgers’ 111.9 rating. That’s a higher rating than Brady, higher rating than Mahomes and a higher rating than Super Bowl champ Matthew Stafford. Burrow ranked 1st in average yards, 6th in total yards, 3rd in TD percentage, on the lower side of INT’s and INT%, and dead last in sacks and sack yards. Burrow clearly played at a high level but the interceptions and sacks need to change. The wide receiver group of Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins along with the recent addition of former 1st round pick TE Hayden Hurst should offer plenty of pass catching options this season. 

In 2021 Cincinnati ranked 26th in rushing yards, tied for 3rd in rushing fumbles, tied for 6th in total touchdowns and 7th in passing yards. Offensively the only thing they seem to lack is some rushing yards which the offensive line changes should help. So they are pretty solid on the offensive side of the ball and likely to improve in 2022. Defensively they were 5th in rush yards allowed but in most other categories they were pretty much in the middle of the pack. What really helps the Bengals is that they didn’t lose any of their biggest contributors from last season. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson is back after his team leading 14 sack season in 2021. They did re-sign former 1st rounder Eli Apple, defensive tackle B.J. Hill and 5 out of the 6 draft picks the Bengals had in 2022 were used on defense including DB’s in the first and second round. 

ESPN’s offseason power rankings have Cincinnati at 5th overall and 3rd in the AFC behind the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs (whom they went 2-0 against in 2021 including the AFC Conference Championships). In the NFC only the championship Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked higher. Green Bay sits at #6 and without Davante Adams or Marquez Valdes-Scantling it’s hard to imagine their receiving group has any chance of being better this year. The Chiefs lost some big names such as Melvin Ingram and “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu. But nothing is more noteworthy than the loss of Tyreek Hill. The Rams are without Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr. still sits as a free agent with a torn ACL. He caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl and helped the Rams make that playoff push. Some of the best teams all lost key receivers. The Bucs lost Richard Sherman, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Bengals got Buc’s guard Alex Cappa and the Bucs are without either TE O.J. Howard or Gronkowski. The Bills are the only other top team from last season to not hemorrhage significant star power. 

Let’s take a quick glance at the Bengals’ division, the AFC North. The Steelers were the only other team in the division with a winning record last year, and are now without future Hall of Fame QB “Big Ben.” They will be starting rookie QB Kenny Pickett or Mitch Trubisky. It’s hard for me to imagine any kind of improvement with that quarterback room. The Cleveland Browns made a big risky move trading for Deshaun Watson. He is still under investigation by the league and could be suspended still, if he even plays this season. It’s a big mystery. All signs point that Watson would be an upgrade over Baker Mayfield and could change the dynamic of the division completely. Even if he plays this season there’s a strong chance he does not get to play the entire season. Cleveland is a bit of a wild card. The NFL is currently a passing league and the Ravens couldn’t pass before the departure of Marquise Brown and Sammy Watkins, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare this year. 

My prediction: I honestly think it’ll be hard offensively for Burrow and Chase to replicate the yards and TD’s. I do think Burrow can easily cut down on the interceptions and the ground game should improve behind the O-line and create a bit more balanced offense that will still perform well. I don’t know how much the defense will improve with a lot of the newer players on defense being rookies. Unless Deshaun Watson plays the full slate of games. I think the Cincinnati Bengals are the team most likely to win the AFC North. Even if they falter in the division they should still be a very strong contender for a wild card spot. I truly think they will absolutely make the playoffs again. How far they make it in the playoffs depends on how long they can avoid playing the Buffalo Bills. The Bills’ addition of Jamison Crowder (who I personally think is underrated) and RB James Cook will give the offense even more juice. That stellar of a defense from last year as well. The Bills look to be the best team in the NFL for 2022. Getting past Mahomes in the playoffs is still tough. So I don’t think the Bengals will have enough magic for a playoff run similar to last year. But any given Sunday. 

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