At this point last season, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone that believed the Bengals would be a respectable football team, much less a playoff contender.
Fast forward to today.
The Bengals are considered a legitimate threat to unseat the Ravens and the Steelers as the dominant teams in the AFC North, and the Bengals' hopes and dreams for 2012 hinge on a couple of young players that made their mark a season ago.
The Bengals were looking to replace troublesome quarterback Carson Palmer in last year's draft. With the 35th overall pick, they did just that by drafting Andy Dalton out of TCU. Andy Dalton was expected to struggle in his rookie season with what was considered a poor team at best, but he surprised everyone by leading his new team to the playoffs as the AFC's 6th seed.
The Bengals high level of success a season ago probably wouldn't have been possible without another high pick from the 2011 draft. A.J. Green was the 4th selection overall, and the pick was designed to replace talent in the Bengals' receiving corp. that had slowly eroded. Green was able to provide Andy Dalton with a reliable target, and Green was rewarded with 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Despite all their success from 2011, it's meaningless now. Young teams in the NFL tend to have problems taking the next step. We saw that last season when the Buccaneers were able to get off to a quick 4-2 start before imploding to finish 4-12.
Unlike the Buccaneers from a season ago, the Bengals are under veteran leadership. Marvin Lewis has been around the block a time or two, and his job will be to keep his young team focused week in and week out. The Buccaneers' problems last year appeared to be related to discipline and focus, and those are issues that Lewis has a great amount of experience in dealing with.
The next step for the Bengals comes tonight in Atlanta against a very formidable Falcons team. Yes, it's only a preseason matchup, but I'll be watching to see how the Bengals attack on both offense and defense. Cincinnati has many young players that will play integral roles on their squad, and their continued development is essential for the Bengals to take the next step, and that step comes later tonight.