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Watch out for the...Bengals?!

Published June 20, Updated June 24

There are always several surprise teams in the NFL. Obviously, we had the Dolphins and Falcons shocking the world last year by making the playoffs after disastrous 2007 campaigns. During Reggie Bush’s rookie year in New Orleans, the Saints went from the abyss of their Hurricane Katrina season to one game away from the Super Bowl.

In other words, we’ve seen some real strange things happen lately. With that in mind as I’m doing my initial handicapping for the 2009 NFL season, there’s one team that I’m starting to get a good feeling about and it’s the Cincinnati Bengals.

Say what?! The Bunguls? Ok, I understand I’m risking my credibility here. And yes, I’m completely aware of this franchise’s atrocious track record.

But we’re here to think about the positives the ’09 Bengals have going for them. First and foremost, Carson Palmer is back to run the show. The 29-year-old quarterback is entering his seventh season, which essentially means that he’s entering his prime, certainly from a mental standpoint when it comes to reading blitzes, coverages and such.

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Palmer, who has a 107/67 career touchdown-interception ratio, missed 12 games in 2008 with an elbow injury that has now healed. It’s debatable as to whether or not Palmer is one of the top-five QBs in the league, but what’s not up for discussion is whether or not he’s one of the top-10 signal callers. Without a doubt, he’s at least in the top 10, possibly the top five.

Needless to say, it’s a big lift for a team to go from Ryan Fitzpatrick (nothing against the Harvard product, but…) under center to a guy that’s been the face of the franchise since being drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2003.

The only big loss for the Bengals was WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh bolting to Seattle via the free-agency route. However, I think they are going to be fine at the wide-receiver position.

For starters, Chad Ochocinco appears poised for a bounce-back season. The outspoken wideout was unhappy last year and his play was mediocre. Ochocinco had his lowest amount of receptions (53) since he had just 28 as a rookie. By all indications, however, he is back on the same page with Palmer and the rest of the team and is excited about the ’09 campaign. In fact, he’s already guaranteed a playoff berth.

Also, the Benglas signed free agent Laveranues Coles, who has been one of the league’s most underrated WRs over the last decade. Coles has 609 catches and 43 TD receptions over the last eight seasons. He has missed only four games during that eight-year stretch, so Palmers knows he can count on Coles.

Another huge plus for Cincinnati is the exemplary work it did on draft day. I liked what a lot of teams did in the draft (the 49ers and Eagles quickly come to mind), but I’m not sure that any squad found itself five future starters, much less five guys that could start right away.

With the No. 6 pick of the first round, the Bengals drafted Alabama offensive tackle Andrew Smith, who most likely would’ve been the top pick if not for his Sugar Bowl suspension and subsequent behavior when he inexplicably left the draft combine early. Smith dominated SEC foes during his three years in college and looks like a perennial Pro-Bowler for the next decade.

In the second round, Cincinnati got another steal when USC linebacker Ray Maualuga fell in its lap. With Maualuga and veteran LB Dhani Jones joining Keith Rivers, the Bengals are going to get excellent LB play. Remember, Rivers was in the midst of an outstanding rookie campaign before Hines Ward took him out for the season (broken jaw).

Ga. Tech DE Michael Johnson was the Bengals’ third-round pick and nobody should be surprised if he becomes a force at rushing the passer from the get-go. Later in the third round, Cincinnati drafted Missouri’s Chase Coffman. The only reason Coffman didn’t go higher is because of a lack of size for a TE, but he might have the best hands of any TE or WR in the entire draft.

With veteran TE Reggie Kelly still around, the Bengals have their blocker for short-yardage situations. And now in Coffman they have a TE who can play a major role in the aerial attack.

Finally, the Bengals took center Jonathan Luigs from out of Arkansas in the fourth round. Luigs is a three-time All-SEC selection who was a major factor in opening holes for the likes of Darren McFadden (Raiders), Felix Jones (Cowboys) and Peyton Hillis (Broncos) during their days with the Razorbacks.

The schedule is another factor in my thinking that the Bengals will be an improved product in 2009. They have home games against Detroit, Kansas City and Denver, three teams that I don’t see making the playoffs. There’s also a road game against the Raiders and a pair of contests against the Browns.

Cincinnati could be favored in all six of those games. Most books have the Bengals sporting a season win total of 6 ½. They have 75/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. I’m not suggesting that future wager, but I’m not opposed to playing ‘over’ 6 ½ wins.

In fact, I might get a taste of that. And don’t be shocked if Ochocinco’s guarantee comes true. One thing is for certain: Stranger things have happened.

Brian Edwards can be reached at briane@vegasinsider.com.

  
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