It's hard to find a real playoff sleeper these days: there are so many football outlets, and everybody is looking to predict this year's surprise team.
But nobody likes the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sports Illustrated thinks they'll finish 5-11. Not one of ESPN's analysts think the Bengals will even finish 2nd in the AFC North: they all predict 3rd or 4th place finishes. Pete Prisco thinks they'll finish 3rd in the AFC North. Don Banks thinks they'll be 6-10. Bill Simmons thinks they'll be 6-10. Not one of USA Today's prognosticators picks the Bengals to win their division--just one picks them to make the playoffs. No Sports Illustrated writer picks them to make the playoffs. One of eleven Fanhouse writers picks the Bengals. This all intrigues me: I'm not saying these writers are wrong to expect little from Cincinnati, but real sleeper emerges when almost nobody expects them to do anything.
There are a lot of problems in Cincinnati, on and off the field. But I think Carson Palmer is an elite quarterback, and he's surrounded by a lot of offensive talent. And I think there are significant flaws to the Ravens, the Browns, and even the Steelers: the AFC North is there for the taking.
I've already predicted a 10-6 record and a division title for the Bengals. I can see why nobody else likes them: questions about players like Chad Johnson and Chris Henry, questions about a defense that's been bad for years, questions about the poorly run organization, questions about the coach. But if you're looking for a sleeper playoff team, who else is there? I have a feeling that during games, any of those "character" questions will not matter: Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzedah will line up and catch passes from a very good quarterback. I'll take Carson Palmer flinging the ball all over the field leading the Bengals to a surprise playoff berth.
Is Cincinnati really so inferior to a team like Cleveland? Look at the team numbers Prisco provides. The '07 Bengals scored 380 points and gave up 385; the '07 Browns scored 402 points and gave up 382. The Bengals had 348 yards per game and gave up 348.8 yards per game; the Browns had 351.3 yards per game, and gave up 359.6 yards per game. When you look at those numbers, the teams are barely different at all. A little fluctuation in points differential and the Bengals are the 10-6 team and the Browns 7-9. Isn't Carson Palmer throwing to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzedah at least as intriguing as Derek Anderson throwing to Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr? And what are the other big differences between these teams?
The Ravens will struggle offensively all season. The Steelers may have problems with pass protection (Ben Roethlisberger lost more yards on sacks than any QB in the league last year, and that was with Alan Faneca), may have trouble in the running game, and face a tough schedule. The Browns are pretty a pretty similar team to the Bengals, comparable in many areas. It's not so odd to imagine the Bengals getting to 10 wins and winning the AFC North.