COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and after appearing to improve this offseason once again, quarterback Andy Dalton and Co. really don't have an excuse to not make it three appearances in a row.
Dalton himself seems to know this much, as he told The SiriusXM Blitz when asked about the team's performance in the 2013 NFL draft:
"...We're not expecting to not improve. I think that's all you can ask, we have a young team, we have a lot of guys who are first, second or third-year players that know the more time we're out there playing, the better we're going to be. I expect to improve, I expect to be better than we were the year before. We've made two playoff appearances in the last two years and I expect to go back there again."
Dalton has plenty of reasons to fully expect another playoff appearance.
For one, the team added North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard to the roster via the draft. Despite having a 1,000-yard rusher in BenJarvus Green-Ellis last season, Dalton faced heavy coverage in most situations because Green-Ellis was not taken seriously as a threat in the backfield.
That changes with Bernard lining up behind Dalton.
Not only does Bernard have the tools to run effectively between the tackles, he has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well. Teams will not be able to only focus on receiver A.J. Green with Bernard in the backfield.
It is also worth mentioning tight end Tyler Eifert, the man the Bengals grabbed in the first round. Eifert will now pair with Jermaine Gresham to give Cincinnati solid two-tight end sets that will create mismatches all over the field.
If you're a defense playing the Bengals, you now have to somehow account for one of the NFL's best receivers in Green, a dynamic back in Bernard and two tight ends you simply may not have the right linebacker or safety personnel to cover effectively.
In other words, Dalton better have a career year in his third season.
All of this goes without mentioning the defense. The unit added linebacker James Harrison to the mix as a pass-rushing presence. Last year's first-round pick, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, is healthy and ready to go.
The team even added a strong safety in rookie Shawn Williams who may have the tools to come in and start right away.
The issue for the Cincinnati defense over the years has been covering opposing tight ends. Williams and a host of athletic linebackers may be able to finally put those issues to bed.
Outside of the improvement the Bengals have made, the AFC North itself appears to have gotten weaker this offseason. The Baltimore Ravens lost a plethora of players such as Dannelle Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Anquan Boldin.
The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to age and lost names such as James Harrison and Keenan Lewis. Cleveland looks to be on the upswing after having a high selection in the draft again, but overall the Browns still appear to have some work to do.
All in all, it appears the stars are aligning for the Bengals this season. Another playoff appearance looks to be within the realm of possibility as the front office has once again made quality additions to the roster. It also doesn't hurt that the young team continues to progress while the rest of the AFC North appears to be having some issues.
Cincinnati has no excuse to not make the playoffs in 2013. Heck, Dalton and Co. may not have an excuse to lose a playoff game, either.
Chris Roling is a graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. His work has appeared on Bleacher Report, Fansided, The Cincinnati Enquirer and more.
You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Roling
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