CINCINNATI (WKRC) - After the Bengals' surprising run from last in the AFC North in 2020 and six wins in head coach Zac Taylor's first two seasons to the Super Bowl last season, now comes the big question of how will they follow that up.
The overwhelming majority of key players from last season are back, and the team addressed its biggest weakness by signing three veteran free agent offensive linemen.
This is a better roster on paper from last season without a doubt.
Games aren't won on paper, of course, and the Bengals don't have history on their side either.
The team has never won playoff game in a season after it reached the Super Bowl, and has also won only one playoff game in a season in which it went from last place in a division the season before to first place.
There have been five times the Bengals went from worst to first in team history, and three times they reached the Super Bowl: 1981, 1988 and last season.
They also went from worst to first in 1970, but lost in the playoffs to the then-Baltimore Colts, and in 1990.
In the two previous seasons after making the Super Bowl, the Bengals lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Jets in 1982 and then fnished last in the division in 1989 after the 1988 team reached the Super Bowl.
The 1990 team is the only one to win a playoff game after a team finished last in the division the year before.
After that 1990 team won a Wild Card playoff game against the Houston Oilers and then lost to the Los Angeles Raiders in the Divisional Round, and the Bengals went 0-7 in the playoffs under Marvin Lewis prior to last sesaon's playoff run.
With that as the backdrop here are this year's Bengals' predictions for breakout players, Pro Bowl selections and final record, plus a prediction for the AFC North, what teams will make the playoffs from the AFC and NFC and how those playoffs will pan out, including picking a Super Bowl champion:
Bengals Offensive Breakout Player: RB Joe Mixon
The Skinny: It's hard to say a guy who set career highs for rushing yards (1,205), receiving yards (314), rushing touchdowns (13) and total touchdowns (16) is poised for a breakout season, but Mixon has a chance to exceed each of those categories in 2022. Playing behind the best offensive line in his six seasons, Mixon should average at least 4.5 yards per carry. If he averages 19 carries per game, which he did over the last two seasons combined, that would push him close to breaking Rudi Johnson's single-season franchise record for rushing yards, which is 1,458.
Bengals Defensive Breakout Player: LB Logan Wilson
The Skinny: He was my pick in this category last season, and he came through in a big way. In his first full season as a starter, Wilson led the Bengals in total tackles (98) and interceptions (4) despite missing four regular-season games. He then posted a team-high 39 tackles, an interception and had three passes defensed in the postseason, and was almost the hero of the Super Bowl when he appeared to make a good play to deflect a pass on third-and-goal from the Bengals 7 in the waning moments only to be called for holding. I expect him to take a step toward being a Pro Bowl-caliber player this season.
Pro Bowl Selections: Mixon, Wilson, QB Joe Burrow, WR Ja'Marr Chase, DE Trey Hendrickson
The Skinny: Mixon, Chase and Hendrickson were each selected last season and there's no reason to think they take a step back in performance to not make it again this season. Burrow faces a tall task in a conference loaded with great quarterbacks, but he finished second in passer rating in the entire NFL last season, and of course helped the Bengals to the Super Bowl. That puts him on the Pro Bowl radar in a big way heading into this season. As mentioned above, Wilson should have another big season and his performance last season will have voters more familiar with him throughout this season.
Bengals Season Record: 10-7
The Skinny: Last season I had the Bengals with four likely wins (they lost one of those at the New York Jets) and six likely losses (they won three of those - at Pittsburgh, at Baltimore and Kansas City at home) and seven swing games, and they went 4-3 in those games. If the Bengals can go 4-5 in the swing games listed, and actually win the games that I deemed as likely wins, they would go 10-7.
AFC North Prediction
The Skinny: The Browns are compromised due to quarterback Deshaun Watson's 11-game suspension, and I can't quite count out the Steelers, but it's hard to believe Mitch Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett will do enough to push for the division or a playoff berth. I have the Bengals winning the tiebreaker with the Ravens, who stayed in the playoff race until late last season despite numerous key injuries. The question about the Ravens is can quarterback Lamar Jackson stay healthy, and how happy/focused will he be without a contract extension?
AFC Playoff Predictions
The Skinny: Buffalo is a clear frontrunner in the East and Indianapolis has the quarterback (Matt Ryan) to push it past the Tennessee Titans in the South. The North and West are the hardest to predict. It will be a fight to the finish in the North as mentioned above, while Kansas City is still the pick to win the West until one of the other three teams prove they are better -- and no else in the division has done that since 2014. While West teams may cannibalize each other when it comes to the Wild Card, the only other teams I can make a case for are Miami, Tennessee and Las Vegas. Denver's upgrade at quarterback should complement a great defense and the Chargers have too much talent to not make the playoffs. Buffalo will likely end up with home field advantage for the playoffs, which will help push the Bills to the Super Bowl.
NFC Playoff Predictions
The Skinny: Philadelphia may have the best roster in the NFC outside of the Rams, while Dallas still has enough issues on the offensive line to slip to a Wild Card spot. A new head coach in Minnesota will provide the spark to move the Vikings past the Packers, who will still make the playoffs because of Aaaron Rodgers. Tampa Bay is clearly the best team in the South. Unless Matthew Stafford's elbow deteriorates as the season progresses the Rams are the team to beat in the conference.
Super Bowl: Buffalo over L.A. Rams
The Skinny: Buffalo has been knocking on the door of the AFC Championship the last couple of seasons, and this is the season the Bills push through that and then win it all.