ESPN panel predicts Bengals win AFC North

CINCINNATI -- It's that time of year again.

It's the time of year when NFL predictions and prognostications are en vogue, and they span the gamut. Paper Super Bowl champions are crowned. As are paper MVPs and paper rookies of the year. Paper (or, in this case, digital) division champions are declared, too.

None of it is official.

This week, as ESPN continues rolling out its season previews, a power panel of men and women who cover the league got together and made their picks for division winners, playoff entrants and end-of-season champions. Yours truly was among the group. You can take a look at my preseason selections at the link above by clicking on the "AFC Reporters" page. In addition to AFC reporters, ESPN.com's NFL Nation NFC reporters also participated in the voting, as did national writers and other contributors to the website.

As you can see, the Cincinnati Bengals were declared consensus AFC North victors by the panel. I was among those who voted them division winners.

Earlier this summer, I expressed some doubt, particularly because it appeared the rest of the division was doing appropriate re-tooling to make a repeat tougher than I had previously imagined. Now that I've seen the Bengals in training camp and watched some of the other teams in the preseason, I do believe Cincinnati has without a doubt the best team in the AFC North. While that may be the case, I still believe Pittsburgh will be a real challenge, meaning the Week 17 finale between the Bengals and Steelers could help decide the division. At the very least, the game could have an impact on where Cincinnati gets seeded in the postseason.

Yes, postseason. I've said it before and will continue saying it: The Bengals this season will do something they've never done in team history. They will reach the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Will they finally win a playoff game for the first time since 1990? I believe so. Will they win enough playoff games to get back to Arizona for this year's Super Bowl? Eh, I'm not sold on that being the case just yet.

... But I'm not saying a Super Bowl berth is impossible.

You can read my full regular-season game-by-game predictions from Tuesday morning here. The team I current have as AFC champion, New England, hosts the Bengals in one of their biggest games in Week 5. If the Bengals can come out of their bye and steal a Sunday night victory on the road at an expectedly hostile Gillette Stadium, then the 10-6 record I predicted will be too low. If they win that game, they ought to go on a run that won't just win them the division, but they could go on a run that could actually get them back to the desert in February.

We'll see.

Regardless, we do know this: The Bengals are favored to win the AFC North, and at this point, there's no reason the defending division champs shouldn't be.