The 2012 NFL season was a bittersweet one for fans of the Cincinnati Bengals. After closing the year out on a hot streak, and making their second consecutive trip to the playoffs, something that hadn’t happened in 30 years, they once again lost in the opening round to the Houston Texans, leaving fans to ponder what might have been. The feeling of loss for Bengals Nation was compounded by the Baltimore Ravens, a divisional rival, winning the Super Bowl. The Bengals were done in by a lack of experience and some youthful mistakes, while the Ravens were aided by veteran leadership, and a roster loaded with talent. The Bengals, in recent history, have been considered a distant third in terms of importance within the division behind the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, in 2013 that could change.
The Ravens are currently riding high after their Super Bowl win. This off-season could be a rough one, though. Quarterback Joe Flacco, fresh off of his amazing postseason performance, is a free agent, and while not expected to go anywhere, is going to command a large raise, expected to be around $20 million. Other important players, like Ed Reed and Paul Kruger, are also free agents and might be casualties of the Flacco contract. There is also talk that wide receiver Anquan Boldin might be released. They will likely need to restructure some contracts to create cap space, but it’s almost certain that this championship squad will see a lot of turnover on the roster.
The Steelers are another team with cap problems going into next season. After missing the playoffs, partly due to more injury issues for QB Ben Roethlisberger, they will have to make some decisions on some key players. One nearly certain loss will be WR Mike Wallace, who makes some bad plays, but is certainly one of the game’s best deep threats. There will also most likely be some veterans cut to make way for young, and somewhat unproven, guys to get under the salary cap. Willie Colon, James Harrison and Brett Keisel could be released just to sign draft picks, and restructuring will probably need to be done with others. The Steelers have the added volatility of having some key players who have been injury prone, like Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu. To get back into form, the Steelers will need help from their young guys.
The Cleveland Browns, a young team that will only get better, are probably not ready to compete at the top of the division quite yet. They do have a rising amount of talent, and will only get better, but might be a couple of seasons away from being legitimate contenders yet.
The Bengals, unlike their two main competitors for the playoffs, have loads of cap space and a young, talented cast of players. A.J. Green is already one of the five best receivers in the NFL, and Andy Dalton, while not perfect, does show flashes of being a very good QB. The offensive line improved vastly in 2012, and should be better with experience. The defense shined last year, led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who terrorized opposing QBs all season long. The Bengals have drafted very well in recent years and it’s beginning to show. Another solid draft along with a few smart free agent signings likely fills any holes on the roster. The Bengals also have the money available to sign their own free agents and keep the team together.
The AFC North is always a strong division, and 2013 will probably be the same, especially if the Browns take another leap forward. The Bengals will definitely not have it easy, but with some issues looming in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, 2013 could be the year of the orange and black. They very well could be the best team in the division and hopes will once again be high in Cincinnati.