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NFL Power Rankings: Bengals get little respect in first ESPN ranking for 2017

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Too many close losses during the 2016 season dropped the Bengals into the 20s of ESPN’s first ranking for 2017.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season is over, so many outlets are putting out their first NFL Power Rankings for 2017.

At ESPN, their ranking has, of course, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons ranking at the top spots. The list is pretty NFC heavy with four of the top five teams coming from that conference.

As for the Cincinnati Bengals, their 6-9-1 season was bad enough that they didn’t come in until the No. 22 spot, easily one of the worst rankings they’ve finished a year with (or began a new season with) under Marvin Lewis.

22. Cincinnati Bengals

2016 record: 6-9-1

Why they're here: A streak of five consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances ended with a thud in 2016. The Bengals' defense, once filled with playmakers, managed 20 takeaways, tied for 19th in the NFL. The future of their secondary is uncertain, given Adam Jones' recent arrest and the pending free agency of cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Plus, longtime left tackle Andrew Whitworth is due to become a free agent. The Bengals are very much a team in transition. To what? That remains unclear.

What could change: Re-signing Kirkpatrick and Whitworth would seem wise, at least for the short term. The Bengals are projected to have more than $47 million in cap space. It also could be argued that they didn't fall as far as they appeared to do. The Bengals lost six games by one score, a problem that could be minimized as they move from place-kicker Mike Nugent to Randy Bullock. Perhaps coach Marvin Lewis, who is seeking a contract extension, will use this offseason as a reset.

It is worth noting that Cincinnati did finish ahead of three teams that finished 2016 with a better record, so the Bengals got a little respect in this ranking. They also finished just one spot behind the 10-6 Miami Dolphins, who Cincinnati whipped 19-7 in Week 4 before they went on a roll and made the playoffs.

The Bengals also dominated the No. 13 Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, so it’s not like all of Cincinnati's wins came against bad teams. That final game of the season and first game of 2017 will hopefully build positive momentum toward a better season this year.

As for the rest of the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns finished dead last at No. 32, and it’s hard to see them moving up much, if at all next season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished No. 6, the highest ranking of any AFC North team. They deserve it after making it to the AFC Championship and losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Patriots.

That said, it’s hard to believes there’s a 16-team difference between the Bengals and Steelers. Both games last year were one score games in which the Bengals had the chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter.

Expect the Bengals to be more competitive next season as the team battles to get back the AFC North crown.