How can the one team – other than the Broncos – that appeared to have the greatest weapons on offense and defense in the NFL, come up flat when it came time for the playoffs?

That question has yet to be answered in Cincinnati.

A great and high-powered offense like looked like San Diego of the 1980s. A defense, aside from the loss of Geno Hayes at the beginning of the season, grew into a tougher unit throughout the year. There is no logic to it. And still no answers to be had from the Cincinnati brass.

The AFC North is a division the Bengals can win for the next year or so based solely on the fact Baltimore and Pittsburgh are re-tooling and Cleveland may never got out of the cellar. Marvin Lewis and his troops will do well to keep the ship on course and see where it takes them. There are decisions to make and recoveries to get over as well.

  • Can the offense still move forward with the loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden?
  • Can the defense still move forward with the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer?
  • Can Andy Dalton become a more consistent passer and finally take the next step?
  • How does Geno Atkins come back from injury and can he dominate again in the middle?
  • What happens with Marvin Lewis? Is his job on the line if the Bengals cannot move past the first round of the playoffs?

And if this is not all, then there are some free agents who have been instrumental in the rise of the team. Who stays and who goes? Here is a look at the players this team must try to retain to remain on top in the division.

Michael Johnson

The defensive end took at cap hit of over $11 million last season and is looking for his big payday in this next contract. Some teams (Minnesota, Baltimore) may take a swipe at hm. He is important to the success of the 3-4 defense in Cincinnati.

Anthony Collins

He is a left tackle that play both sides of the line. That is a much needed commodity for any NFL team. He was a $2.1 million cap hit in 2013 and should be a bargain for this franchise.

Taylor Mays

The defensive back was paid $640,000 last season and is a big hitter. I think he comes back and helps a pretty solid defensive backfield.

Alex Smith

A tight end who could be the third player at the position. Should the team ever decide to trade Tyler Eifert or Jermaine Gresham, he could get more playing time.

Chris Crocker

He was only a $457,000 cap hit last season and the team could re-sign him and use him both as a reserve and on special teams.