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2005 preview: Bengals

AFC North predictions
1. Cincinnati
2. Pittsburgh
3. Baltimore
4. Cleveland
Cincinnati Bengals
Head coach: Marvin Lewis, third season
2004 record: 8-8
2004 rankings: Offense, 18th (321.3 yards/game); Defense, 19th (335.3 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: Sixth
From SportingNews.com: AFC North overview

Finally, the losing came to a halt in 2003, and the Bengals had the look of a team on the verge of a playoff breakthrough last year. They didn't quite get there as they were crippled by a second straight 1-4 start under coach Marvin Lewis, but the seeds of future success took root as the season wore on, particularly with the skill positions on offense.

Quarterback Carson Palmer made strides, and the Bengals seemed to find fellow cornerstones in receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson. Had it not been for Cincinnati's 26th-ranked run defense, the Bengals might have eked out a playoff berth.

OFFENSE

Judging from training camp, Palmer looks like he’s ready to make a breakthrough. It looks like the Cincinnati offense is ready to step up and become one of the league’s top-10 units. If the offensive line can avoid injuries, that’s a reasonable expectation. Palmer remains the key, but the coaching staff believes he had a breakthrough over his final six starts of the season when his passer rating was an impressive 96.9.

Beyond Palmer, there are some issues regarding quality depth. Former first-round pick Chris Perry is working his way back into playing shape and looks like he may be able to contribute in a backup role this season. The Bengals also want some production from the third receiver spot, where Kelley Washington has failed to live up to expectations. Rookie Chris Henry has shown some flashes of his talent and may be the answer if Washington fails again.

DEFENSE

All eyes will be on rookie linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman. With the addition of defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, the Bengals hope Pollack and Thurman can do for their linebacking corps what Jonathan Vilma and Eric Barton did for the Jets last season – add speed and stop the run.

Thurman has looked good in the preseason, but he is likely to run into some occasional rookie bumps. Pollack hurt himself by holding out until midway through training camp; he is going to have a very hard time making the switch to outside linebacker from his college position of defensive end. It may be midseason before he can have a serious impact. Whenever Pollack rounds into form, both he and Thurman will be factors in Lewis’ defense making a big leap forward this season.

The firing of Leslie Frazier as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator shouldn't be underestimated, either. Frazier and Lewis never were on the same page last season, and the blame over the run defense ultimately led to the split. New coordinator Chuck Bresnahan will lean on Lewis far more this season where it concerns the defense's philosophies.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bengals have a quality duo in kicker Shayne Graham and punter Kyle Larson. Graham hasn't disappointed, converting 49 of 56 field-goal attempts over the last two seasons, but he has to become more consistent at putting the ball into the end zone on kickoffs.

Larson won the punting job as a rookie last year and settled into the spot as the season went along. The Bengals still have to sort out the return game, where wide receiver Cliff Russell and cornerbacks Keiwan Ratliff and Deltha O'Neal will have to share duties.

PREDICTION

The Bengals will finish 11-5 and first in the AFC North.