With just one game remaining in the 2013-2014 season to play, thirty other teams currently have their hives buzzing with busy bees to make the needed additions and subtractions to their roster for a successful 2014-2015. Some teams have a lot of work to do, while others just need some minor tweaks to round out already solid-looking rosters. The Cincinnati Bengals have long been residents of the former camp, but have elevated their status among the league's elite and moved into the latter neighborhood.
Lately, be it on Twitter or casual conversation, I have been frequently asked about what the Bengals need to do to get over that one-and-done playoff hump. The initial question is almost always on which positions should they address this offseason-- a topic that me and the other boys from Who-Dey Weekly chatted about this week. After Super Bowl XLVIII between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks is over, it's on to free agency and the draft in the next couple of months.
For review, there are roughly five positions that I see the Bengals needing to look at rounding out and/or upgrading, be it with a veteran or a rookie. The interior line, namely Center, needs to be observed especially with the often inconsistent play of Kyle Cook since he signed a lucrative contract shortly before the 2011 season and subsequently injured before the 2012 campaign.
Injuries and age to Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall should force the team to look at cornerback, as the up-and-down play of Dre Kirkpatrick have some nervous going into his third season. There is also the ever-growing chorus calling for a quarterback to push Andy Dalton, even if he is firmly entrenched as "the guy" for 2014. I personally agree with the sentiment, even if it is just with improving the backup situation behind him. Running back and a pass-rusher of some sort will need to be carefully examined, especially if Michael Johnson predictably bolts elsewhere this offseason.
While five position groups sounds like a lot for an 11-5 division crown winner, it actually isn't. While the depth and status of a couple of those groups makes one a bit nervous, they are all parts of a whole where both the offensive and defensive units finished within the top-ten last year. That carries weight.
As "The Big Game" approaches, I find myself looking at the two teams and their journey to New York. Omaha's and Richard Sherman public freak-outs aside, these two teams knew what they were doing in building their teams into Super Bowl contenders. It wasn't pure, dumb luck.
Some of the cliches ring true for both teams playing in The Big Game: build your offensive line, find a reliable (if not outstanding) quarterback, get to the passer. It's the successful blueprint to many other Championship teams throughout the annals of the NFL. Yet, there are a few things that these teams have done in order to get them in position to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Going All-In With Talent Acquisition:
The Seahawks and the Broncos saw what they were building and realized how close they were to becoming potential champs. Denver saw their collective talent and how they were able to get into the divisional round of the playoffs with a very limited offense led by Tim Tebow. Instead of relying on an unproven rookie or a veteran journeyman, Executive Vice President of Football Operations, John Elway decided to push all of the chips to the center of the table and go for Peyton Manning. It has paid off like gangbusters, with Manning chasing his second Super Bowl win and Elway's third (two as a player, potentially one as an executive).
Denver also saw a need for some more talent on defense and added cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Terence Knighton in free agency. Both have been solid for a unit that plays second fiddle to Manning's crew that gets most of the credit for carrying the team in 2013. Wes Welker was the biggest name that they brought on this year.
Though Seattle has preferred to mostly rely on the draft, there are some big trades and free agent acquisitions that have played a big part in who they currently are. Marshawn Lynch was one of Pete Carroll's first big gets in a midseason 2010 trade. Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin were two wide receiver acquisitions, one by free agency and one by trade. Neither have particularly worked for the price that Seattle paid for the respective wideouts, but if Harvin can manage to make big plays on Sunday, that one game alone makes the trade for him worthwhile.
Other big fish landed in free agency and/or by trade include quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn, tight end Zach Miller and defensive end Cliff Avril. The latter two have worked out really well, especially for Avril being an icing-on-the-cake kind of a player for the Seahawks.
Stacking Already Deep Position Groups:
Going all-in with free agency and trades have made certain position groups uber-strong and have paved both clubs' way to New York. Seattle's pass rush, be it with outside linebackers or linemen, has been formidable for the past couple of years now. The addition of Avril on a surprising one-year deal has been awesome for the already-stout defense, but the unsung acquisition of Michael Bennett was another great add. These two were brought on board with Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Clinton McDonald and Red Bryant already on the defensive line roster.
Seattle's running back group has also rounded out nicely after the Lynch trade. Not satisfied with what was behind "Beast Mode", Carroll and Co. used a fourth round pick on Robert Turbin in 2012 and a second round pick on Christine Michael last season. It not only shows foresight as Lynch is no spring chicken, but it shows them playing to a strength.
The same can be seen with Denver. After adding tight ends Joel Dreesen and Jacob Tamme last season when Manning arrived, they invested in a talented pass-catching player at the position in fourth round pick, Julius Thomas. And, oh, those wide receivers. After having two highly-talented players at the position in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, they decided to take away Tom Brady's security blanket in Wes Welker.
Even though they are looked at as a pass-first team, the Broncos have stacked their running back stable as well. Though Knowshon Moreno just had his best year as a pro in 2013, Denver still spent a second round pick on Montee Ball this year. They also had a decent contributor at the position in Ronnie Hillman.
Knowing Your Identity:
The Seahawks' and Broncos' respective brain trusts have done a masterful job of knowing who they are and/or who they want to become as football teams. Because of the aforementioned ploys of going all-in and stacking certain positions, it created the ability for the teams to recognize their many strengths and limited weaknesses.
When the Broncos were able to land Manning, they immediately left the Tebow option offense and became a pass-happy, fast-paced team that can put up forty-plus points weekly and can seemingly overcome any deficit. Additionally, because of the stacking of the running back position and solidifying the O-Line, it's not just the pass that they can slice and dice you with.
Seattle, on the other hand, knows that they are the hard-hitting tough guys from the Northwest. Their secondary has towering behemoths that are able to cover nearly anyone in the NFL and because of their wise investments on the defensive line, they are able to constantly harass the quarterback. Throw in their ground and pound style on offense, and it's easy to see why they come into Super Bowl XLVIII playing the part of the villain.