CINCINNATI -- Just how close were the Cincinnati Bengals to being a Super Bowl team this season?
One look at the two teams competing in Sunday's big game makes it clear the Bengals really weren't that far away. After all, they were a fumbled snap and an overtime touchdown drive away from beating the Denver Broncos on the road while playing with their second-year backup quarterback. Had they won that Week 16 game with AJ McCarron and went on to the beat the Ravens in Week 17, the Bengals would have been the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed.
Had that happened, who knows how their playoff run would have been?
Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
Obviously, the Bengals -- with their franchise-record 12 regular-season wins -- are at home like 29 other teams. Here are five things the Bengals need in order to punch a ticket to Houston for Super Bowl LI next season:
Be more disciplined. The overarching lesson from last month's wild-card round playoff loss to Pittsburgh was that the Bengals didn't do enough to hammer home the need for discipline. As evidenced by the 30 yards of penalties incurred by Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones in the final 22 seconds, they didn't keep their cool against a hated rival at a critical time. Already the coaching staff has vowed to levy stiffer punishments next season for players who commit costly, unnecessary infractions.
Hope for secondary stability. Cincinnati is bound to take a hit to its defensive personnel in free agency. Four valued veteran defensive backs are slated to hit the market when the new league year begins in March. The next two months could be pivotal to the Bengals' 2016 success as some combination of Leon Hall, Jones, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka could end up calling another city home. Although the team is encouraged by the young players it has groomed behind these four, keeping at least three of them would promote stability. Remember, Cincinnati had the No. 2 scoring defense in 2015. Nelson's league-leading eight interceptions played a key role in that ranking.
Protect the football better. Although the Bengals were tied for fourth with just 17 turnovers this past season, they still had issues with them at crucial times of key games. They lost 11 fumbles, including three in the playoff game. Running back Jeremy Hill had four of the 11. His late fumble in the wild-card game practically gave Pittsburgh the comeback win. All told, the Bengals lost fumbles in the final two minutes of three of their five losses.
Improve the running game. In addition to inadequately protecting the football, Hill was a shell of his 2014 self. After averaging 5.1 yards per carry his rookie season, he averaged just 3.6 during his sophomore campaign. Sure, he had a career-high 11 rushing touchdowns this past year, but he generally didn't perform the way the Bengals needed him to. A strong 2016 season from him and fellow back Giovani Bernard could be key for new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.
Finally get some luck. The controllers of the football universe have been unkind to the Bengals as it relates to their postseason play. This year's last-minute playoff loss was a sign of that. They need some good fortune. If they can finally shake the mojo that has led to a 25-year, eight-game playoff losing streak, maybe a trip to Super Bowl LI is on the horizon.