On this, the final day of the 2013 season, it only makes sense to do a little peeking ahead at what the next 365 days could have in store for one of the NFL's Super Bowl starved franchises.
It has been 25 years since the Cincinnati Bengals played on football's grandest stage, the same one the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will share in a matter of hours. The last time the Bengals appeared there, many of their current players were barely out of diapers. Some were not even born yet.
It might very well be another 25 years before the Bengals see another Super Bowl, but for the sake of this exercise, let's assume next year is the year the drought ends. What must happen in order for the Bengals to see next year's Super Bowl? These five things:
1. Maintain an aggressive defense. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has already said he plans to retain many of the pressures the Bengals had when Mike Zimmer led the defense before moving on to Minnesota for his first head-coaching opportunity. In fact, the Bengals may end up blitzing more than they did under Zimmer, and they may do so in more creative ways. Among Cincinnati's staple blitzes were those from the safety positions. At times late this season, the Bengals would send both Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson at the same time to confuse opposing quarterbacks. They'll need to keep that pressure up next season. As the league's No. 3 total defense, they showed just how far good, consistent pressure can take a defense. When rushing five or more players this year, the Bengals led the league in third-down defense and yards allowed per play. Quarterbacks had a 21.7 QBR when the Bengals applied that much pressure.
2. Keep Andrew Whitworth at guard; re-sign Anthony Collins. OK, if you're a Bengals fan, this is actually more of a dream scenario than anything. It's fairly unlikely that these two events will happen, but if they do, you have to believe Cincinnati will greatly increase its chances of going further in the postseason than it has the last three seasons. With Whitworth at left guard most of the last five games of the regular season, the Bengals solved some of their rushing woes and blocked more aggressively than they had most of the season. In addition to having Whitworth on the interior following Clint Boling's ACL tear, Collins was also more permanently inserted into the starting rotation at left tackle, giving the Bengals a slightly more athletic left side of the line than they previously had. It's unlikely Whitworth and Collins will be paired side-by-side in 2014 because the latter stands to receive a major pay raise when free agency starts next month. That pay raise may not come from the Bengals, either. If Cincinnati is able to somehow get Collins to stay, though, arguably their best offensive unit from 2013 comes back poised for an even better next season.
3. Run more in the playoffs. We've repeated this point often in the month since Cincinnati was knocked out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to San Diego. So we won't belabor it, but quite simply, the Bengals have to run in the postseason to be successful. After showing how much of a passing league the NFL was in the regular season -- teams averaged 235.6 passing yards -- teams started running the ball more in the postseason. They still threw a lot, too, averaging 239.5 yards of passing offense. But entering the Super Bowl, they ran for 128.2 yards per game in the playoffs. That was more than 16 yards per game for all 32 teams in the regular season. After combining for 34 carries in the Week 13 meeting against the Chargers, Bengals running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard had just 20 carries between them in the playoff game. If quarterback Andy Dalton has shown anything it's that his shoulders can't carry the full weight of a playoff game. The weight has to be shared, and having a good running game is one way for it to be.
4. Go undefeated at home. For as long as Marvin Lewis is the head coach, this will remain one of the team's yearly goals. This year, the Bengals finally accomplished it, going 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium in the regular season. But that can't be enough, apparently. The Bengals have to carry this mantra into the postseason. An eight-win showing at home should be enough, combined with other wins, to get a team into the playoffs and maybe even give it home-field advantage. From there, the team simply has to win when given those favorable odds. Cincinnati didn't do that this year, when it finally hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2009. They lost that one, too. By going undefeated at home next year, the Bengals could generate serious momentum for the postseason. It would mean they had wins over the Broncos, Panthers, Falcons, Jaguars and the rest of the AFC North.
5. Win a first-round playoff game. Speaking of breeding confidence and generating momentum, by simply winning a wild-card game, the Bengals could actually set themselves up for a Super Bowl run next year. It's now been 23 years since they won a playoff game, meaning relative pandemonium could occur in Cincinnati when it finally happens. By accomplishing something an entire generation hasn't seen, that added dose of magic or luck or whatever it is that their last couple of talented teams have been missing, might be enough to make a once-perceived improbable playoff run possible.