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Shutdown Countdown: Cincinnati Bengals try to get over playoff hump

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

The Cincinnati Bengals are an interesting case study this year.

Teams lose coordinators all the time. It's very rare for a team to lose both coordinators, unless they've both been fired because they weren't very good. But Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer did so well for the Bengals, they earned head coaching jobs in Washington and Minnesota. That's great news for them, and a tough blow for Cincinnati.

It's not unprecedented, and the 2012 Falcons are a recent example to show it can work just fine. The Falcons replaced both coordinators before that season, went 13-3 and to the NFC championship game. But that doesn't mean it won't be hard.

Gruden turned Andy Dalton, everyone's favorite punching bag, into a quarterback who threw for 11,360 yards and 80 touchdowns in three years. Zimmer had been Cincinnati's defensive coordinator six years, and here are his defense's NFL ranking in yards allowed those years: 12th, 4th, 15th, 7th, 6th and 3rd. Think that's easy to replace?

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Hue Jackson and quarterback Andy Dalton (AP)

Hue Jackson and quarterback Andy Dalton (AP)

The Bengals wanted continuity, so they promoted Hue Jackson to run the offense and Paul Guenther to run the defense. Cincinnati doesn't want anything to mess with its run of success, though this run is becoming better known for its playoff failures.

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Cincinnati has made the playoffs three years in a row, including a division title last year. Only the Packers and Patriots have a longer active playoff streak. And the number associated with the Bengals' streak is zero, the amount of playoff wins to come from it. Last season's loss to the Chargers at home, as the biggest favorite on wild-card weekend, was particularly disheartening. Marvin Lewis, in 11 Bengals seasons, is 0-5 in the playoffs. The playoff losses are why Dalton, despite being wildly productive through his first three years, is a punchline.

At least the Bengals bring back a lot of talent on both sides of the ball that helped them to the three straight playoff berths. However, it's also the same core that hasn't been able to experience any postseason success.

2013 review in less than 25 words: From the end of September on, the Bengals lost three regular-season games, and two were in overtime. Cincinnati won the division at 11-5.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The coordinators weren't all the Bengals lost in the offseason. The Bengals said goodbye to free agents like defensive end Michael Johnson, tackle Anthony Collins and receiver Andrew Hawkins. Those losses might not be crippling, but Cincinnati added nobody of note in free agency. Considering the Bengals lost some good players and didn't add one projected starter all offseason, the roster is worse.

Best offseason acquisition: There wasn't one free agent worth noting, unless backup quarterback Jason Campbell excites you. So we turn to the draft. Running back Jeremy Hill wasn't the Bengals' first draft pick (that was cornerback Darqueze Dennard), but he'll have a big impact right away. The team is phasing out BenJarvus Green-Ellis for Hill, who went in the second round despite a long list of off-field issues. He has legitimate talent and will be the power back to go with Giovani Bernard. With Jackson expected to focus his offense more on the run game, Hill will be valuable. 

Achilles heel: The Bengals' secondary has some good players, but age might be a concern. Cornerback Leon Hall is 29 and coming off his second Achilles injury. Terence Newman will turn 36 before opening day. Adam Jones will turn 31 during the season. Safety Reggie Nelson will also turn 31. These veterans have done well for the Bengals, but it's not great to be so old in the secondary. The team really needs 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick to turn it on, but he hasn't shown any signs of that yet. Dennard could give the secondary some young legs, too.

Position in flux: One of Jackson's projects will be to figure out how to use his two tight ends. Tyler Eifert had some good moments as a rookie, but as a first-round pick the Bengals probably want a little more impact than his 11.4-yard average and two touchdowns. Sharing the field with Eifert, Jermaine Gresham's numbers were cut significantly, and he had just 458 yards last season. The Bengals could use an athletic tight end like Eifert in many ways, and it will be worth watching to see how Jackson pulls that off.

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Giovani Bernard (Getty Images)

Giovani Bernard (Getty Images)

Ready to break out: Bernard, who is 5-9 and 208 pounds, might fight the stereotype that he can't be a workhorse back for a while, like Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs did. But like Charles, Bernard is electric with the ball. Bernard had 695 yards rushing and 514 yards receiving as a rookie last year, and was strong in every part of the game. Jackson likes to run the ball, and if Bernard can prove early on that he can handle closer to 300 carries this season (he had 170 last year despite clearly being Cincinnati's best back), then Bernard will enter the top tier of NFL backs this season. 

Stat fact: The only quarterbacks in NFL history to have more yards or passing touchdowns through their first three seasons than Dalton are Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, two of the all-time greats. Dalton's problem is he is inconsistent, looking fantastic last October as he earned AFC offensive player of the month, then having a 55.9 rating in November. And, of course, he has been bad in the playoffs. That skews the perception of him, fairly or not. Dalton has improved in just about every area each season except interceptions, which have gone from 13 to 16 to 20 in his three seasons. That trend better change this year.

Schedule degree of difficulty: As we touched on in the Steelers preview, the Bengals got a tough first-place schedule. While the Steelers play the Jets and Chiefs, the Bengals get the Patriots and Broncos. They both play the Colts: The Steelers host Andrew Luck and Co. while the Bengals have to go to Indianapolis. The Steelers get the dome-loving Saints in Pittsburgh on Nov. 30; the Bengals have to go to the Superdome. Throw in games against a deep NFC South, and getting 11 wins again won't be easy.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: There are some questions coming into the year, but this is a talented team that gets superstar defensive tackle Geno Atkins back from a torn ACL. He'll join Vontaze Burfict, one of the league's best linebackers. On offense, A.J. Green is a top-five receiver, Bernard is a big-play back, Marvin Jones, Hill and Eifert can be great secondary pieces. There's more than enough top-end talent for the Bengals to repeat as division champs, and maybe even (gasp!) win a playoff game.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: It's tempting to say the nightmare is to go back to the playoffs and lose in the first round again. The Bengals are probably sick of hearing about it by now. But, a playoff berth can't be guaranteed even with this talented team. The schedule is really tough, having new coordinators on each side isn't easy, and a couple close losses here or there could knock them back to a wild-card fight with the AFC's middle class.

The crystal ball says: I like the Bengals just a little more than the Steelers, but like the Steelers' schedule way, way more. I don't think the Bengals will win the division, but they will get a wild-card spot. Big deal, the Bengals have been there before. Can they get a win? There's no reason to believe they can't, as long as this isn't a major mental block for the players and staff. But even if they can finally advance, I don't see them beating the Broncos or Patriots after that. 

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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