Around the AFC North: Can Cincinnati Bengals Build On Surprising Success of 2011?

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 19: Michael Johnson #93 and Geno Atkins #97 of the Cincinatti Bengals sack quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium on September 19 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. The Bengals beat the Ravens 15-10. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

This time last year, the Bengals weren't expected to add enough wins in 2011 to their dismal total in 2010 to make enough to qualify for the playoffs.

How wrong people were.

Instead of falling apart because of former QB Carson Palmer refusing to play for Cincinnati, the Bengals, led by second-round QB Andy Dalton and one of the best front seven defenses in football, put on a clinic of hard-nosed defensive and comeback offensive football, notching a 10-6 mark despite limitations in terms of experience and continuity.

As the saying goes, though, if you continue doing what you're doing, you'll continue getting what you're getting.

Cincinnati will continue leaning on a potential top-five caliber defense in 2012, and if they can get just a little bit of improvement from their offense, they have the ability to go further than their one-and-out playoff run of 2011.

AFC North Previews: Cleveland Browns | Cincinnati Bengals | Baltimore Ravens | Pittsburgh Steelers

Early injuries plagued the rising Bengals, though, with first-round pick CB Dre Kirkpatrick missing significant time in camp, and C Kyle Cook likely out for at least half the season.

However, Kirkpatrick will return and he looks as pro-ready as any defensive player in the draft. The return of CB Leon Hall strengthens their secondary, which was a question mark on an otherwise outstanding team. The presence of DL Geno Atkins as the anchor of a versatile, athletic and scary unit gives defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer the ability to use several different looks and will rack up sacks all year long.

Offensively, there are only so many ways to stop WR A.J. Green, and as Dalton showed last year, when it doubt, heave it in his direction and let him make a play on the ball. Green's only going to get better, and emerging TE Jermaine Gresham will be a strong second receiving option.

People may point two the hypothetical Sophomore Slump theory, suggesting Dalton's second year will be worse than his first, but they also said he'd be terrible as a rookie (he wasn't the best passer in the league, but did pretty well overall managing a young offense). Their second of two first round picks, LG Kevin Zeitler, will give him a boost in running the ball to take pressure off Dalton and the offense.

From there, they can lean on their defense to return to a double-digit win total, and possibly their first back-to-back playoff appearance since Cris Collinsworth played.

For more on the Cincinnati Bengals, check out Cincy Jungle on SB Nation.

AFC North Preview: Are Bengals Poised to Leap Past Steelers and Ravens? (via sbnation)

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