Are the Bengals a 2009 sleeper?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CINCINNATI -- Here is a little-known fact: The hottest team in the AFC North last December wasn't the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers or the conference finalist Baltimore Ravens.

Truth be known, it was the Cincinnati Bengals.

Yes, the team in the division with the longest winning streak to end the 2008 regular season resides in the Queen City. The Bengals were 3-0 in their last three games and outscored opponents 50-19 in that span, which mostly went unnoticed because the team finished 4-11-1.

But add in the fact that Cincinnati accomplished this feat without franchise quarterback Carson Palmer, who is ready to return, and the Bengals have officially earned "sleeper" status for the 2009 season.

"I can agree with that," Bengals tailback Cedric Benson said with a sly grin. "I have that feeling, too, and I think we definitely showed a glimpse of it at the end of the season. I'm really looking forward to it."

Palmer factor
Cincinnati opened offseason workouts this week with plenty of optimism, and perhaps no player was more giddy to get back to work than Palmer. He was limited to just four games with an elbow injury that required extensive rehab, but Palmer says he is now "100 percent."

Palmer has not been bashful about Cincinnati's prospects this offseason. The two-time Pro Bowler recently sent a voicemail message to Bengals ticket holders saying he will do everything possible to lead Cincinnati to a Super Bowl.

It's hard to believe that the former No. 1 overall pick in 2003 already is entering his seventh NFL season. But Palmer, 29, sat on the bench his entire rookie year and most recently missed 12 games, leaving just four full seasons and one playoff appearance on his résumé thus far.
"It's going into Year 7 and I feel like I haven't really played football yet,” Palmer said. "I definitely haven't played in any significant games in seven years. But I can't wait. The more years you put in the NFL, the more you realize you can't look to next year at any point.

"The time is now.”

The Bengals are certainly treating it that way.

Cincinnati lost starting receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in free agency to the Seattle Seahawks, but quickly signed veteran Laveranues Coles to a four-year, $27.5 million contract to replace him. The Bengals also spent money to re-sign starters Benson, safety Chris Crocker and kicker Shayne Graham in an effort to keep key components together from last year's team.

The Bengals have an uphill climb ahead of them, with the Steelers and Ravens dominating the AFC North and the conference in 2008 by winning 28 combined regular-season and postseason games. But Palmer's return at least gives Cincinnati a fighting chance to compete against its archrivals next season.

"Any time you're playing with a backup quarterback it's tough to evaluate, which is what they did for the majority of the season," Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin recently said at the NFL owners' meeting. "You're capable of seeing what you're about when you have a guy like Carson Palmer leading your offense. The best defense is offense at times."

Defense first?
In Palmer's absence, the Bengals were forced to gradually develop into a defensive team last season. That could bode well in terms of balance if Cincinnati's offense returns to form.

The Bengals have spent four consecutive first-round picks on defense and it has finally paid dividends. Under then first-year defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati finished No. 12 in total defense in 2008, which was by far the best ranking of the Marvin Lewis era.

Also returning next season will be linebacker and 2008 first-round pick Keith Rivers, who was off to a stellar rookie year before breaking his jaw seven games into the season. Rivers hopes to take
his unit to higher heights.

"Yes, I'm very optimistic," Rivers said. "We have a great nucleus and some great coaches on defense. It's exciting to see what's going to happen with a year more of experience and having everybody together."

The Bengals do have some concerns. They have major holes on the offensive line, could also use help rushing the passer, and star receiver Chad Ocho Cinco has been a conspicuous no-show for offseason workouts this week.

But overall there are more good vibes than not in Cincinnati. A strong finish could do that for a team, but it will be key for the Bengals to carry that momentum into a new season.

"It's about coming back to work the same way that you left off," Benson said. "[You come] with the attitude that you're coming to work to get things done and get new accomplishments and new achievements. We have to stay focus on the main goal, which is starting just as hot as you finished."