February 2010 -- In one of the most surprising turnarounds in NFL history, the Cincinnati Bengals were crowned Super Bowl champions after defeating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLIV. Here is how they did it.
1. Carson Palmer - Returning from an elbow injury that cost him nearly all of the previous season, Carson Palmer had a MVP-caliber season. He managed to stay health and was flawless throughout the year.
2. The Physicality of the Defense - It was obvious that the Bengals had turned the corner in terms of physicality on defense in their week 10 showdown with the Steelers in Pittsburgh, now known as "the Body Bag Game II." Seeing both Hines Ward and Ben Roethlesberger leave the field unconscious on stretchers made everyone realize that this defense is for real. Crocker's hit on Ward was one for the ages. Peko, Sims, and Tank Johnson did a good job all season stuffing the run, giving the defense a new dimension. LB Keith Rivers emerged as a beast, being named AFC Defensive Player of the Year. Rookie LB Rey Maualuga was always around the ball, becoming much more of a presence than the Bengals expected last April when he slid to pick #38.
3. Field Position - Rookie P Kevin Huber was named to start in the Pro Bowl for a reason. He is a game-changer.
4. The O-Line - The inexperienced line gelled during the pre-season and became the biggest surprise of the year. Not only did they protect Carson, they opened holes for Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott against some of the leagues toughest defenses. The Bengals were glad they ultimately signed 1st round pick OT Andre Smith when he filled in admirably at both RT and LT during the course of the regular season.
5. Chad's Leadership and the Emergence of Chris Henry and Andre Caldwell -- Coming off his worst year, Chad OchoCinco made the pro bowl again. More importantly, however, he became a team leader, rather than a distraction. Chris Henry led the league's wide receivers in touchdowns and Andre Caldwell filled in spectacularly when Laveranues Coles got nicked up. Caldwell made Bengals fans ask, "TJ who?"
Then I woke up, rubbed my eyes, and realized that all this was a dream. In fact, it is a dream I have every summer. 1988-89 seems so long ago. Was it a dream too?