You simply cannot take in the whole view of the AFC without first paying tribute to the conference's overlords, quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Every offseason we become increasingly optimistic that age will finally take its ultimate toll on these living legends, only to see them back in the AFC Championship Game yet again come winter. Pittsburgh and Baltimore always fancy themselves among the heavy-hitters regardless of their record the previous year, and Indianapolis seems to have hardly skipped a beat in terms of continuing to show up for annual postseason appearances.
The Cincinnati Bengals are the party crashers of this haughty group of elitists. They too show up to the Playoff party each year only to drink too much, get the spins within the first hour or so, and recklessly find their way home. They are mocked and laughed at and find it nearly impossible to feel included.
Some might say that they aren't growing up. They still wear the clothes of a boy when they dangle the limbs of a man. They struggle to imitate adulthood and shrink from major achievements and responsibility. Something is great about them, but it fails to rise up when it becomes absolutely necessary for it do so.
Yet, it is not an incurable case. Time, as we all know, is a funny thing. No matter how long a tradition has enjoyed being in existence, one day it will break.
The Bengals remain among the handful of most-promising contenders to form next year's playoff pool. They are in jeopardy of losing two potential starters in free-agency, but have serviceable contingency plans in both areas currently on the roster if no other replacement is obtained. The youthful talent they have stockpiled in the draft continues to bloom and develop. Key contributors-some tops in the league at their position-return from injury, mended and angry at their setbacks. If you look below the raincloud of pessimism formed from the latest playoff letdown, you may notice a river valley quietly pumping out another bumper crop of potential.
There are some areas that need fortified. The corners have aged to the point of worry, there is a weak beam or two along the offensive line, and the quarterback play still doesn't instill confidence for the next game, but the repairs are minor in a grander scheme. AFC North rivals, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have salary-cap problems and some gray holdovers from the glory days of yesteryear. Their concerns are far greater than Cincinnati's big picture as the Steelers continue to endure the discomforts of a transitional era and Baltimore tries to assess what went so wrong in 2013 after going so right in 2012.
San Diego, the villains who bumped the Stripes from a game they were supposed to win, feels like a team with future promise, but they could just as easily prove to be a one-dimensional group that heated up at the right time last season. Philip Rivers played like a poised leader down the stretch and let his experience take over for his limited weaponry and rookie head coach. Kansas City shocked the league, but endured too many key injuries late in the year to advance deep into January. With the group they have currently, however, it's hard to think they can match that kind of campaign again in '14.
If the Bengals continue their linear regular-season trend of the last three years, they will win 12 games next year, win their division, and lose in the first round of the playoffs. Or time could decide that a dip in success is necessary for them next season and send a heavy dose of mediocrity squarely their way. I, being the tortured optimist, however, think it will go the other way, and time, or karma, or whatever superstitious element of destiny you subscribe to will smile upon Cincinnati and provide them with a well-deserved playoff victory. We will drink local ales from large steins and waltz merrily in the snowy streets. The red will be in our cheeks as we grin and kiss one another. The Bengals will then be our friends and the conjured mental image of Marvin Lewis will be met with sincere satisfaction.
To look down on this prospect is done out of fear. It hurts to lose when it matters the most, and we shy away from the pain. Some may think preparing themselves, both mentally and emotionally, by expecting the worse will take some of the edge off, but this is wrong. The hurt comes either way, but the glory is far sweeter when the believer is finally proven correct when his team wins. The Bengals will be back because they remain better than most of their opponents. It's as simple as that.