CINCINNATI -- Jan. 9, 2016, has officially been buried.
Cincinnati Bengals fans will recall that was the night their postseason dreams were dashed for a fifth straight year, this time in heartbreaking fashion. A self-inflicted end-of-game collapse sent the Bengals to another wild-card loss and prompted their head coach to adopt a two-word mantra once April rolled around: "Bury it."
Well, a new year began at Paul Brown Stadium on Friday night, as the Bengals looked to outdo their 2015 campaign, which culminated with a 12-4 record and a division championship. Andy Dalton, the quarterback whose last season ended on this field with a Week 14 thumb injury, was back in action, and he looked strong in limited action.
But so did some of his youngest receivers, providing a measure of optimism in the 17-16 preseason-opening loss to the Minnesota Vikings:
QB depth chart: Dalton looked sharp early, connecting on his first four passing attempts -- all of which went to A.J. Green and Brandon Tate. He finished 4-of-5 for 32 yards. First-off-the-bench backup AJ McCarron picked up where he left off last season, throwing a touchdown pass. He dropped a perfect back-shoulder fade to rookie receiver Tyler Boyd for 40 yards to help set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to undrafted rookie Alex Erickson two plays later. McCarron, who relieved Dalton in parts of the Bengals' last five games of 2015, finished Friday's game 11 of 16 for 125 yards and the touchdown. Keith Wenning and Joe Licata had their share of action as third- and fourth-teamers. This depth chart isn't changing.
Maybe that player could start: Boyd gave a subtle glimpse at the myriad ways the Bengals can use him. He lined up as a punt returner and got work both in the slot and at one of the boundary receiver positions. The pregame scratch of veteran Brandon LaFell allowed Boyd to play even longer, and he took full advantage of the extra work. Boyd's 40-yard first-half reception from McCarron came as he broke into a well-timed slide. The over-the-shoulder haul put the Bengals in goal-line territory and was clearly the team's play of the game. Maybe Cincinnati is getting closer to identifying a receiver to line up opposite of Green.
Who got hurt? There were no announced injuries, but running back Jeremy Hill was seen leaving the game favoring his left arm during the first quarter. He didn't return.
A surprise player who impressed: Three times on McCarron's first drive behind center, the Bengals found themselves in third-and-1 situations. They converted all three times. The conversions contributed to the drive lasting 22 plays and 12:24. At the end of it, the Bengals stalled out on Minnesota's 4, failing to convert on fourth down. The star of that series, though, was fullback Jeff Luc, who impressed by opening up holes for his running backs on the short-yardage conversions. After whiffing on a block on his first third-and-short, Luc pushed back defenders on the next two third-and-short snaps. Remember, this was the first time Luc had ever played fullback in a game. A two-way player in high school, he played tight end before getting recruited as a linebacker. Until this spring, the second-year player had been exclusively a linebacker since his freshman year at Florida State.
Surprise player 1A: Let's add undrafted rookie Erickson to that list, as well. With 2:45 remaining in the game, the receiver/punt returner broke a couple of tackles and used a series of quick cuts to get free for an 80-yard punt return that resulted in a touchdown.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Bengals looked ... Dominant on defense, and OK on offense. Dalton's unit moved the ball well on its first couple of plays but stalled when Dalton's lone incompletion went wide, leading to a field goal attempt. The drive was capped by a 48-yard miss by Mike Nugent. Minutes later, though, the Bengals' first-team defense stood tall, turning back Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater & Co. on three straight plays before a punt. (More on what that starting defensive unit did below.)
One reason to be concerned: You might want to be concerned, Bengals fans, with the way the Bengals weren't able to capitalize on two early-game scoring opportunities. Nugent's miss was a little problematic, as was the failed fourth-down conversion that the offense had on McCarron's first series. Between the miss and the failed conversion attempt, that might have been 10 points the Bengals left off the scoreboard.
Geno Atkins is still a bad man: Yes, yes he is. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle appears to be already building upon an impressive 2015 season that saw him record 11 sacks. On just three plays on Friday night, he very nearly had two. Atkins' very first play of the game featured him chasing Bridgewater about 10 yards into the backfield. The only thing that saved Bridgewater from going down was a last-second stiff-arm that denied Atkins the wrap-up tackle. One play later, though, Atkins got his sack. A play after that, ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson converged to force a rushed incomplete pass.
Cody Core turns heads too: While Boyd might start convincing the Bengals he can start, another rookie stated a strong case for being part of the Bengals' receiving rotation. Core, the sixth-round pickup from Mississippi, was a go-to weapon of McCarron's, as well. Core caught three passes for 33 yards.