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Bengals rank 9th in preseason power ranking

Cincinnati, despite winning the AFC North in 2015, lag behind the Steelers in USA Today's newest power ranking. Pundits are concerned that the Bengals might not be able to replace Hue Jackson, among other things

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the Bengals fell short in the playoffs again at the end of last season. For the fifth year in a row and sixth in the last seven years, Cincinnati lost the Wild Card game, and they did so in dramatic fashion. But the Bengals have also reached the playoffs in five straight seasons and in six of the last seven, claiming three division titles on the way as well. Only the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, both blessed with two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, have a longer consecutive playoff appearance streak. So why does USA Today rank the Bengals ninth in their power ranking?

Here's why:

QB Andy Dalton answered his doubters, but Cincinnati can't shake concerns it's not built for postseason success. Replacing Hue Jackson and key veterans lost in free agency could prove tricky.

Leaving aside the playoff concerns, it's true that the Bengals have lost one of the most heralded offensive minds in the NFL while also letting go of some important players like Reggie Nelson and Marvin Jones - I want to believe they weren't thinking of Andre Smith, right? But look at the Steelers, that rank fifth despite suspensions to Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell and a horrible secondary. Does this mean that Cincinnati will fall behind Pittsburgh and out of the contenders' class without Jackson and the departed players?

While the promotion of quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese to offensive coordinator wasn't flashy, it helps to make the change smooth for Andy Dalton and the rest of the offense, and the Bengals filled the other coaching vacancies with some pretty good names, like Bill Lazor and Jim  Haslett. And while guys like Nelson or Leon Hall can still ball, Cincinnati has gotten younger - which more often than not is a good thing in this sport. Also those players only left because there's a lot of talent waiting in the wings, and when given the chance, some of the young players have flashed, like safety Shawn Williams. Losing two key weapons on offense hurts, but drafting Tyler Boyd and a return to 2014 form for running back Jeremy Hill can help alleviate the pain. The addition of some veteran leadership with the signing of linebacker Karlos Dansby also looks good on paper, and it could help Vontaze Burfict, Adam Jones and others use some restraint on the field.

The Bengals still have a deep roster and barring that number two receiver and third pass rusher, the team has few holes. They have quality backups with a history of stepping up when called upon like second-year tight end Tyler Kroft and quarterback AJ McCarron. And second year offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi could be a force to be reckoned with sooner than later. Most of the teams ranked ahead of the Bengals by USA Today have probably a better quarterback, which matters a lot. The Broncos don't but they are still the current Super Bowl champions and just resigned Von Miller to a huge extension.

But the Vikings coming in at eighth, just above the Bengals, proves that some analysts don't see the Bengals as serious contenders despite a great season in 2015. They've fallen back to the playoff teams pack, which is not bad or really relevant at this point in the offseason. Regardless of Dalton finally taking his game to an upper level and even with every unit being loaded with youth and talent, for the media, it seems like Cincy has gotten worse.

Only time will tell if the Bengals really are the NFL's ninth-best team, or if they'll once again prove analysts wrong.