The Bengals were division champs and added a ton of talent during the offseason, but that doesn't mean they're a lock to get back to the playoffs. Why, you ask? Let's take a closer look at Cincinnati on the 28th stop of our 32-day NFL tour.
2009 Record: 10-6, AFC North champions (lost to Jets in Wild Card round)
2010 Schedule Difficulty: Their opponents went a combined 138-118 (.539 winning percentage) in 2009, which makes for the fourth most difficult schedule in the NFL.
Key Additions: Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, tight end Jermaine Gresham (draft), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (draft), wide receiver Jordan Shipley (draft), cornerback Brandon Ghee (draft), cornerback Pacman Jones, safety Gibril Wilson, kicker Mike Nugent
Key Losses: Running back Larry Johnson, kicker Shayne Graham, wide receiver Laveranues Coles
Burning Question: What's the deal with Carson Palmer? It's pretty remarkable how successful the Bengals were in 2009 because franchise quarterback Palmer was mediocre at best. Palmer passed for 3,094 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and he was flat-out lousy in the Bengals' last two games against the Jets, combining to complete 19-of-47 passes (40.4 percent) for 146 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Palmer could have been affected by the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, as well as a cast of fourth-string tight ends. If that's the case, the additions of Bryant, Shipley and Gresham could yield huge results for a Cincinnati passing game that ranked 26th in yards in 2009.
Palmer has proven to be an elite quarterback — evidenced by back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons in 2006-07 — but he'll have to rebound from a down year in 2009.
2010 Outlook: The Bengals had an excellent offseason by upgrading their two weakest areas at tight end (Gresham) and safety (Wilson). They also loaded up with a really stout draft class, and the added offensive options should really help Palmer.
The AFC North is a beast of a division this year, though, with the Ravens looking like a Super Bowl contender and the Steelers being the Steelers. Cincinnati probably won't repeat as division champs (Baltimore is the pick here), and it's going to take a lot of willpower to grab a wild-card berth. This looks like one of the best races in the league.