AFC outlook 2013: Bengals have talent for a Super Bowl run
Looking for a safe bet with the Broncos and Peyton Manning? Go ahead.
Prefer the defending Super Bowl champs, even though there hasn't been a repeat winner since the 2003-04 Patriots? Then the Ravens it is.
Or will Tom Brady lead the Patriots back to the big dance for the sixth time? Have at it.
No one would quibble with any of those three choices.
But if you're looking for an outside-the-box pick -- and the NFL is all about surprise teams -- then how about the Bengals playing at MetLife Stadium in February?
Yes, it goes against every fiber of rational thought and emotional sensibility, considering the fact that the Bengals -- stars of this season's edition of "Hard Knocks" on HBO -- haven't been to the Super Bowl since Boomer Esiason was the quarterback in the 1988 season. But look at this Bengals team and there really is a lot to like.
Andy Dalton is emerging as one of the league's better passers in his third year.
Dalton has a blue-chip wide receiver in A.J. Green, and rookie Tyler Eifert joins Jermaine Gresham to form a terrific tight end combo.
Tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- aka the "Law Firm" -- brings needed experience to the backfield, and the Bengals drafted a quick running back in Giovani Bernard.
And oh, that defense. Under longtime coordinator Mike Zimmer, who really should be a head coach, the Bengals now are a powerful unit behind Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and rookie Vontaze Burfict. Add Steelers cast-off James Harrison to the mix, and this is a downright intimidating unit.
So as difficult as it might be to consider the Bengals in terms other than what we've come to know over the years -- aptly nicknamed the "Bungles" for all that has gone wrong -- the pieces are there to support the notion that another playoff run is possible. And a special playoff run at that.
If you're in the more conservative camp -- and trust us, we usually prefer chalk to going out on a limb like this -- there's always Denver, Baltimore or New England. Or if you think it's time for the Texans to take the next step, that's fine, too. The defense is championship- caliber, Arian Foster is a big-time running back and wide receiver Andre Johnson is one of the best in the game. But Matt Schaub showed some jitters on the big stage last season, and we're not sure he has what it takes to make it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Or how about the Colts and Andrew Luck? Everything went surprisingly well last season, and second-year regressions aren't uncommon in the NFL. Still, Luck is a big-time talent you can't underestimate.
Other than that, there are slim pickings finding a contender. The Dolphins aren't ready yet despite a big offseason spending spree from owner Steve Ross. Pittsburgh is getting older and less reliable. The Chiefs will be light years better than last year's 2-14 team, but it's still early for Andy Reid and Alex Smith to think Super Bowl. And the Chargers' window looks pretty much shut.
So we'll go ahead and take the plunge. Even if that water is ice cold, we'll go with the B-B-B-B-engals.