THE BELIEF TheBengals' electric offense, led by the remarkably rehabbed Carson Palmer, isunstoppable. And with a defense bolstered by solid free-agent signings, smartdraft choices and a key player returning from injury, Cincinnati has the talentto advance deep into the postseason.
THE REALITYAssuming that Palmer completes his comeback from last season's devastating kneeinjury-he may be ready for the opener; if not, then soon after-the Bengalsshould repeat their outstanding offensive performance of 2005, when they weresecond in the AFC to the Colts in points scored (26.3 per game). The only otheruncertainty on offense is the condition of third-down back Chris Perry, who hasbeen slow to return from injuries to his left knee and ankle.
But can thedefense rise to the level of the offense and make Cincinnati a formidable SuperBowl contender? That's going to take some doing. Last year, when the Bengalswent to the playoffs for the first time since 1990, they held opponents to 9.5points per game during a 4-0 start. Then came the unraveling. "We gave upbig plays," says coach Marvin Lewis. "You can't give up big plays andexpect to win games." The defense ended the season ranked 28th in theleague and gave up more points than any other unit to reach the postseason.When Cincinnati yielded 31 points to the Steelers in a wild-card loss, it wasclear that Palmer's knee wasn't all that needed to be rebuilt in theoff-season.
The Bengalssigned a pair of free agents, tackle Sam Adams and strong safety DexterJackson, and spent four of their first five draft picks on defensive players.The biggest boost for the D, however, may be the return of hard-hitting,third-year free safety Madieu Williams, who injured his shoulder in practice inWeek 4 and was lost for the season. Says running back Rudi Johnson, "Ithink if [Williams] would have played the whole year, a lot of things wouldhave been different. He could have erased a lot of the big plays and helped alot against the run." Williams, who has been healthy since March, andJackson, a former Super Bowl MVP, are a major improvement over the safety duothat finished last season: Ofeanyi Ohalete (not re-signed) and Kevin Kaesviharn(benched).
The only bad newssurrounding this team has come off the field: Five players were arrested in theoff-season for offenses ranging from boating under the influence of alcohol(offensive lineman Eric Steinbach) to weapons charges (wideout Chris Henry, whowas arrested three other times in a seven-month span). Odell Thurman, a rookiesensation at linebacker last year, has been suspended for the first four gamesfor violating the league's substance-abuse policy. "We have a lot ofveteran leadership on this team, and they're not going to allow that todistract us," says Williams. "That being said, the guys who did haveoff-season issues were disappointing. We hope they can learn and grow fromit."
With games atKansas City, at Pittsburgh and at home against New England within the firstfour weeks, the Bengals will be hard-pressed to start the season the way theydid in 2005-unless, of course, everything they believe becomes reality.
10 at KansasCity
1 NEW ENGLAND
15 at TampaBay
12 SAN DIEGO
19 at NewOrleans
18 atIndianapolis (M)
24 at Denver
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
NFL rank T1
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .543
Games againstplayoff teams 7
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BENGALS
> Their bestoff-season move was drafting Johnathan Joseph, the cornerback out of SouthCarolina, in the first round. He's got great coverage ability and very goodspeed.
> I didn'tlike third-rounder Frostee Rucker, the USC defensive end. He wasn't a first-daypick based on his ability on the field and behavior off it.
> They've gotto be a lot better in their run defense, which ranked 20th in the league lastyear.
> They needCarson Palmer to stay healthy for every game. Anytime he's out, there's toomuch of a drop-off to backups Doug Johnson and Anthony Wright.
> TheBengals' biggest threat is overconfidence. It's one thing to be the hunter,another thing to be the hunted. When everyone else is gunning for you, it's adifferent game.
Guard EricSteinbach is very athletic and can play all three positions on the line-a soundplayer.
As a rookie in2005, the first-round pick out of Georgia held out through the first threeweeks of training camp, and coaches say it took him until the middle of theseason to get up to speed. But then Pollack missed two games with a left kneesprain. This year the Bengals think he'll be flying around the field the wayhe's supposed to. "He's far better than he was in knowledge of thegame," says coach Marvin Lewis. "Everything he's doing now is what weexpected."
COACH MARVINLEWIS (27-22 in NFL), fourth season with Cincinnati
SAM ADAMS -- NEWACQUISITION
SACKS 4 1/2
2005 RECORD 11-5NFL
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AL TIELEMANS (PALMER)
COME BACK SOON How badly do the Bengals need Palmer? Their first four opponents were a combined 37--27 in '05.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ