Cincinnati Bengals season outlook: The biggest key to a turnaround

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Marvin Lewis: Time to go prove it

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

An offseason for the Cincinnati Bengals that was one week longer than the previous five is nearly over.

The men in tiger stripes take the field Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens to kick off the 2017 season hoping to get back to the playoffs for the eighth time in Marvin Lewis’ tenure that is entering its 15th year.

Can they do it?

The pieces are there for another strong regular season. What happens beyond that is a crapshoot based in no small part on matchups and, well, sometimes dumb luck.

But we can worry about that in January.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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As part of the celebration of the Bengals 50th season, the team has hung banners for some of the franchise's all-time greats, including Anthony Munoz, Boomer Esiason and many more.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

I look at these Bengals and see a few question marks, but that’s life in the paradise for parity that is the NFL.

There are always going to be a couple of teams that are head-and-shoulders above the rest and a 2-3 who are significantly behind. The Bengals are not in either of those groups.

They are among the dozen or so teams that are going to see a handful of plays determine the difference between 6-10 and 10-6.

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This is where the schedule and of course health come into play.

Both of those areas look a lot better at this point in Cincinnati than they did a year ago.

The Bengals have some depth at quarterback, running back, receiver and defensive line, so they can withstand a few injuries but not becoming a MASH unit.

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I look at this slate and see 10 wins for the Bengals, beginning with two in the next eight days.

They should be able to handle a sinking Baltimore squad that hasn’t had its quarterback all preseason, and getting a Houston team with an unsteady quarterback situation on a short week could be a good break.

Ten wins feels like a lot given the questions that remain with the offensive line, but there is just not much to be scared of on this schedule.

The Week 3 trip to Green Bay probably won’t be a lot of fun, and the Steelers are a chic pick to be the second-best team in the AFC behind the Patriots.

Other than that? If Tennessee really is on the upswing, the Titans will be a tough out at home in November. A week after that, I see Denver (which may have sorted out its quarterback situation by then) as a matchup problem (Who is going to block Vonn Miller?).

I have them sweeping the Browns and being swept by Pittsburgh. Weird stuff seems to happen in both of those series, though, so maybe they split with both?

Time will tell.

As I wrote yesterday, the Bengals' approach to this season has been a familiar one: They are trusting their long-term plans are good.

That flopped last year, but it has served them well over the past decade or so.

They need the third-year tackles to step up on the line and young pass rushers to inject some life into the front seven.

The former would correct a weakness from last year and latter is a potential new strength.

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Andy Dalton has more weapons than he did last year, and he needs to make another leap in his development both as a player and a leader.

If those things don’t happen, Marvin Lewis’ 15th season in Cincinnati may be his last, and something more like a rebuild might be in order.

I’m not a fan of change for the sake of change, but there may only be so far either of those guys can take a team.

Those are other things we can worry about later, though.

Now it’s time to tee things up and see what surprises are in store for 2017.

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