Our season preview for the AFC North continues to my predicted second-place team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Second place was the toughest decision for me. I nearly put the Ravens at this spot, but I came away impressed by the Bengals during my training camp visit there. After a painful preseason for the Bengals, perhaps I should put an asterisk by this prediction. The Bengals will take second as long as they stay healthy.
Here's the preview page for the Bengals. And here's five things you need to know about them:
1. Andy Dalton has an edge this year: Dalton has a lot to prove (he went 0-7 against teams with a winning record last season), and that is a good thing for the Bengals. Critics seem to bring the best out of Dalton, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after being a second-round pick. The talk all offseason has been his lack of arm strength. When he threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the preseason, he said, "You can tell everybody that it's not even close to what I've got if I need it." That's what you call swagger.
2. It's a make-or-break year for Rey Maualuga: He's watched his former USC teammates, linebackers Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, become the leaders of their defenses. Maualuga would be happy to establish himself at his own position. The move to middle linebacker last year wasn't as successful as everyone anticipated. Maualuga believes he will play much better this season after having his ankle surgically repaired in January. But time is running out for Maualuga, who is entering the final year of his contract. There's increased pressure with impressive rookie Vontaze Burfict playing behind him.
3. They will run the ball up the middle: The Bengals made a concerted effort to address their biggest weakness on offense by signing left guard Travelle Wharton in free agency and drafting right guard Kevin Zeitler in the first round. This game plan took a hit when Wharton went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener and center Kyle Cook recently suffered a serious ankle injury. Cincinnati is hoping the replacements -- left guard Clint Boling and newly signed center Jeff Faine -- will provide a better push inside than last year's line. Last season, the Bengals averaged 3.3 yards in between the tackles (30th in the NFL) and scored three touchdowns up the middle (tied for 21st), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Cincinnati is still going to run up the middle because that's where physical running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is most effective.
4. Jermaine Gresham will elevate his game: It's no secret Green is the top receiver on the team and one of the best young playmakers in the league. The biggest question is who would step up to be the Bengals' No. 2 target. The focus has been the battle between Armon Binns and Brandon Tate. But the player to watch is Gresham. Drafted ahead of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in 2010, Gresham has the tools to be an elite tight end like them. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Gresham crack 70 receptions this season.
5. Defense has the potential to be the best in the AFC North: This initially comes across as blasphemy because the Bengals are in the same division as the Steelers and Ravens, two of the best defenses the past 15 years. But making this jump isn't much of a stretch for Cincinnati, which ranked first in defense for a couple of weeks last season and finished seventh overall. Great defense starts up front and the Bengals are loaded with Geno Atkins and Domata Peko inside and Carlos Dunlap (who could miss the season opener with a knee injury) and Michael Johnson on the ends. Cincinnati has experience at outside linebacker with underrated Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson and it has stockpiled former first-round picks at cornerback. This group can be nasty this year.
DIVISION FINISH: 2nd -- The Bengals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82. But this isn't your typical Bengals team. Green is one of the most explosive playmakers in the league, and the defense could be the best in the division if it avoids injuries.