CINCINNATI -- While the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season is very much alive and well with an appearance in this weekend's opening round of the playoffs, the calendar year itself is now over.
Since the year has come to a close, there's no time like the present to take a look back at its latest Bengals regular season through the lens of heroic actions. As winners of the AFC North, the Bengals have certainly had their share of heroism this season.
As you can tell by the headline of this posting, this isn't an ordinary list of "heroes." This one is comprised of those who have made some of the most behind-the-scenes difference in the Bengals' season. You won't see Andy Dalton on this list. You won't see A.J. Green on this list. You won't see Vontaze Burfict, either. Their impact is quite real, and very visible.
So, without further ado ... let's get to it:
DE Wallace Gilberry. It's hard to think of a defensive lineman in Cincinnati who has quietly had as strong a season as the seventh-year end. Despite coming off the bench much of the year, he finished the regular season tied with Carlos Dunlap for the team lead with 7.5 sacks. He also proved his versatility by playing both on the inside and outside of the line following defensive tackle Geno Atkins' season-ending injury. Once Atkins was lost with a torn ACL, Gilberry was among those who stepped inside to play in key downs. His athleticism there gave the Bengals an added measure of versatility in the pass rush. Of his sacks, 4.0 came against some of the NFL's top quarterbacks, three of which are now in the playoffs. He got to Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
CB Adam Jones. Another veteran, Jones had his share of timely big-play opportunities that went his way during the regular season. Against Pittsburgh three weeks ago, he intercepted a Roethlisberger pass deep downfield that gave the Bengals hope in the middle of a game that they had trailed to that point. Although they still ended up losing, the third-quarter pick-off had the potential to change momentum for the Bengals. Considering where it was recovered, the interception was reminiscent of Jones' pick in the final 16 seconds of the Week 6 game against the Patriots. In the middle of a driving rainstorm, he picked off a Brady pass to ice the 13-6 win. Statistically, Jones this year had his best season since 2006, when he starred with the Tennessee Titans. His 55 tackles and three interceptions this season were his most since the 63 tackles and four interceptions he had that year. He also appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career.
DB Chris Crocker. Once again an early-season acquisition, the former free agent paid dividends for the Bengals in more ways than one. In addition to making plays defensively -- he had two interceptions and 1.5 sacks -- Crocker was the same soothing locker room presence he always has been. An unofficial player's spokesman, he routinely addressed the media, giving a sense of the pulse of the team, and he served as a mentor for some of the younger players who have followed his lead. One of them, Dre Kirkpatrick, has begun accepting the knowledge Crocker, Jones and Terence Newman have begun passing down to him. Like Jones, Crocker's role increased dramatically following the loss of cornerback Leon Hall to a torn ACL. Even without Hall and Atkins, among others, the Bengals still ended up ranking third in the league in total defense.
OT Anthony Collins. We've written a fair amount about Collins this season, but what has made him special has been his ability to play both sides of the offensive line. He's filled in at right tackle for Andre Smith at times this season, and has more famously taken over at left tackle in the way of injury. After left guard Clint Boling suffered an ACL injury, he was replaced by an offensive line shuffle that included moving Collins off the bench to left tackle and placing left tackle Andrew Whitworth at left guard. The unit has actually played better under the current format than it did with the previous group of starters. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins hasn't allowed a sack or quarterback hit in nearly 600 snaps this season. He also hadn't been charged with a penalty until last week.
P Kevin Huber. His season may have come to an end against Pittsburgh three games ago, but Huber was making a case for team MVP at times this season. His 40.5 net punting average ranked as seventh in the league following last week's games. That number probably would have been a lot higher had it not been for a 67-yard punt return touchdown Cincinnati allowed on the play that ended his year. He broke his jaw and cracked vertebrae on a play the NFL later said should have been penalized. The vicious blindside hit on Huber opened a hole that Steelers punt returner Antonio Brown sprinted through as he beat the Bengals for the score. Cincinnati has had trouble replacing Huber. Shawn Powell was released this week after shanking a punt that traveled 10 yards and hooked left into the stands. The Bengals are now on punter No. 3 this season.
Bengals' front office. Cincinnati's brass deserves some credit for the way it handled signings and other moves in 2013. By re-signing Atkins and Dunlap, franchise tagging defensive end Michael Johnson and bringing back veterans like Crocker and Jones, the group put together a team that at least has the talent and depth to go on a postseason run. The jury still is out as to whether or not the team assembled will go on such a run, but the talent distribution on the roster itself could arguably be tops in the AFC. The traditionally cheap ownership group smartly opened its pocket book at the right times this year.