NFL 2016: Bengals well-placed to end lengthy wait despite offseason losses


When the Cincinnati Bengals take the field at MetLife Stadium to face the New York Jets on Sunday, they will do so as heavy favourites to reach the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

The Bengals have been one of the more consistent modern-day NFL franchises but the well-documented problem has been their stumbles when they reach the postseason.

Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since 1991, with head coach Marvin Lewis still waiting to taste January success despite taking over way back in 2003.

It appeared last season as if the Bengals' long wait for a playoff victory was set to end when they overturned a 15-0 deficit to lead the arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers 16-15.

However, a Jeremy Hill fumble and some gross indiscipline turned the tide back in favour of the Steelers, who triumphed 18-16 in an ill-tempered affair.

The impact of that loss in the opening round will be felt by the absence of linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was suspended three games for a hit to the head of Steelers' wide receiver Antonio Brown.

But Lewis, for his part, has put the game behind him, declaring the 2016 season "a new chapter", and it is one they can afford to approach with optimism.

It is the Steelers who are favourites to win the AFC North but Pittsburgh have been hit by suspensions of their own. Running back Le'Veon Bell is banned for three games for missing a drugs test, while wide receiver Martavis Bryant will miss the entire season.

Bryant was handed a year-long ban for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

Those suspensions will be detrimental to Pittsburgh's high-powered offense and the Steelers defense remains vulnerable, particularly in the secondary.

The Bengals are also without some pieces from last year. Receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu have moved on to pastures new, and tight end Tyler Eifert is still on the sidelines with an ankle injury suffered in the Pro Bowl, piling more pressure on A.J. Green - who remains one of the premier wideouts in the league - to record a sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took up a head coaching role with the Cleveland Browns, while on defense safety Reggie Nelson left for the Oakland Raiders.

Yet the Bengals remain stacked with Pro Bowl talent, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, with Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap doing much of the heavy lifting for a defense that finished 11th in the league last season. 

And they will need that grit up front for what is a tough start to the season.

In addition to the Jets game the Bengals have road trips to face the Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots and welcome the Super Bowl champions Denver Broncos to Ohio within the first six weeks of the campaign.

Such a run could derail the Bengals' season, or it could prove just the early test they need and steel Cincinnati for an eventual postseason campaign.

Should the latter prove to be the case then quarterback Andy Dalton must stay healthy. Dalton was not on the field for the season-ending loss to the Steelers after breaking his thumb attempting to make a tackle against Pittsburgh in the Week 14 regular-season matchup that fuelled much of the animosity between the two teams.

And cornerback Adam Jones is keen for Dalton to avoid throwing himself into collisions this season.

"Oh yeah. We've made that clear here," Jones told Pro Football Talk Live. "Whatever happens, he needs to run his ass back to the sidelines."

As long as Dalton heeds Jones' advice, the Bengals should be in position to finally end their quarter-of-a-century drought.