Expert Analysis


11 min read

Cincinnati Bengals Are NFL's Top Candidate to Go From Worst to First in 2024

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow throws at OTAs
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow practices during an off-season workout at the practice fields outside Paycor Stadium on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Burrow is recovering from wrist surgery after a season-ending injury in Week 11. (Cara Owsley/The Enquirer/USA TODAY NETWORK)

The Houston Texans were the NFL’s most surprising team last season when they made the leap from 3-13-1 and the bottom of the AFC South in 2022 to being division champs at 10-7 in 2023.

Every year, there’s a team that emerges from the depths of the NFL.

It might not seem right to include the Cincinnati Bengals in the discussion of teams with the best chance to go from worst to first in their division this coming season. After all, the Bengals were a Super Bowl team just three years ago and made it to the AFC title game in 2022.

Yet last season, despite having a winning record at 9-8, the Bengals finished last in the AFC North. (All four of the division’s teams had winning seasons, led by the 13-4 Baltimore Ravens.)

Elite quarterback Joe Burrow's return from the wrist injury that cost him the last seven games in 2023 is the main reason for optimism about the Bengals’ potential to reclaim the division title they won in 2021 and 2022. Add in the team’s positive work in free agency and the draft and we should be talking about the Bengals as a Super Bowl contender, along with as being in the mix for their division crown.

How The Bengals Improved

It Starts with a healthy Joe Cool

Jake Browning did a good enough job in his seven starts last season (going 4-3) to earn a new contract as the No. 2 quarterback. But the reality for Cincinnati is Burrow has to stay healthy, which has been an issue for him. He had a preseason calf injury last season and a torn ACL that derailed his rookie season in 2020.

He must lead the way for the Bengals to regain their footing at the top of the AFC North and as a Super Bowl contender. Cincinnati gave the Kansas City Chiefs their toughest postseason battles in recent years.

Burrow is back throwing at Bengals organized team activities (OTAs), and he added weight to help absorb the hits. He had 100-plus passer ratings when fully healthy in 2021 and 2022 with a 27-12 record (including 5-2 in the postseason) over those two seasons.

The Supporting Cast on offense is Potentially Better

It may only be for 2024, but it’s big for Burrow and this offense that No. 2 wide receiver Tee Higgins will be back on the franchise tag. He’ll team up with three-time Pro Bowler Ja’Marr Chase to form one of the league’s top wide receiver duos. And third-round speedster Jermaine Burton adds a downfield threat as a replacement for Tyler Boyd.

Joe Mixon was traded to Houston, but the running back spot is well fortified with Zack Moss and Chase Brown. Tight end looks upgraded with the free agent signing of Mike Gesicki and the drafting of Erick All in the fourth round to join solid returnee Drew Sample.

If Trent Brown stays healthy, he could be an able replacement for Jonah Williams at right tackle, with athletic first-round pick Amarius Mims a solid right tackle starter by next season or perhaps sooner.

The Bengals also added Talent To their defense

Lou Anarumo is one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the league, but the Bengals' overall defense slipped from 16th to 31st last season. The organization responded by adding many talented defenders via free agency and the draft.  

Second-rounder Kris Jenkins and third-rounder McKinnley Jackson join free agent signee Sheldon Rankins and B.J. Hill to form an excellent rotation at defensive tackle after the departure of injury-prone D.J. Reader. Jenkins, Hill and Rankins will add inside pass-rushing pressure to help Pro Bowl DE Trey Hendrickson.

Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are fine linebackers, and the secondary has been significantly bolstered by the free agent signings of safeties Vonn Bell and Geno Stone. Stone led all safeties in interceptions with seven last season in Baltimore. 

Fifth-round corner Josh Newton can play in the slot or outside and will add quality depth; he's a potential future starter as well as fine special teams player because he’s a solid tackler.

Despite Contract Concerns, Overall Outlook Is Positive

There are contract issues in Cincinnati, which often is the case when a star quarterback signs his second contract. Burrow’s cap number is $29.7 million this season and jumps to $46.25 million next year as part of his $55 million-per-year extension.

Hendrickson wanted his $21 million-per-year deal increased and extended after his 17.5-sack season in 2023. He requested a trade this offseason but reported to OTAs and said he’ll play for the Bengals in 2024. 

“That’s a no-brainer. I love this team,” he said last week.

Higgins has not reported to OTAs after being hit with the $21.8 million franchise tag. He reportedly requested a trade but has said he expects to play for Cincinnati this season. 

Higgins has until July 15 to sign a long-term deal, but that’s unlikely to happen with the team focused on eventually extending Chase, who is waiting on Justin Jefferson’s extension to get done in Minnesota (for more than $30 million per year).

How Does The rest of the AFC North Stack Up?

Within the division, the Ravens will be no pushover as last year’s top AFC seed. They have the reigning MVP in QB Lamar Jackson, re-signed star DT Justin Madubuike and added RB Derrick Henry.

Baltimore also drafted some talented prospects, led by first-round CB Nate Wiggins and second-round OT Roger Rosengarten. But the Ravens appear somewhat vulnerable after suffering significant free agency losses, including: Stone, Pro Bowl LB Patrick Queen, top pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, touchdown leader Gus Edwards at running back, WR Odell Beckham Jr., OT Morgan Moses and guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson.

The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers were also 2023 playoff teams, but they had quick exits in the wild-card round. Both should be formidable defensively and will have good offenses if they get strong play from their quarterbacks — Deshaun Watson in Cleveland and either Russell Wilson or Justin Fields in Pittsburgh.

The Bengals will benefit from their fourth-place schedule, especially compared with the Ravens as a first-place team. Cincinnati's two matchups with Baltimore are relatively early in the season — Week 5 at home and Week 10 on a short week with a Thursday night road game, which is not ideal.

Overall, this team is poised to return to the playoffs and has the best chance of any NFL division cellar-dweller from last season to make the leap to division champs. The Bengals just need their additions to acclimate quickly and their stars, especially Burrow, to stay healthy.

Other Teams to Consider

I can’t see the Washington Commanders or New England Patriots (each 4-13 last season) pulling off the Texans/C.J. Stroud feat under their first-round rookie quarterbacks, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye. That’s partially because those two teams play in tougher divisions — the NFC East and AFC East — than the AFC South was last year.

As for the 4-13 Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams rule the NFC West. The Carolina Panthers have a long climb from 2-15 and are in the weaker NFC South, but I don’t see being at the top of the division in the cards for them in 2024.

The Los Angeles Chargers will be an interesting team to follow with better coaching under Jim Harbaugh compared with Brandon Staley. The Chargers fell from a 2022 playoff team to last place in the AFC West at 5-12. Pro Bowl QB Justin Herbert missed the last four games because of a fractured finger.

There’s plenty of talent on this team, but Los Angeles has to replace its starting receivers. And the biggest challenge will be overcoming the Chiefs, who are the two-time defending Super Bowl champs and have won the AFC West eight straight years. Sorry, Chargers, it’s not happening this season.

That leaves two other candidates: the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears. Neither carry the credentials of the Bengals, but they appear to be on the rise and have an outside shot at being the surprise team of 2024.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis
Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) dives just short of a first down after Houston Texans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) trips him up during their game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. (Denny Simmons/The Tennesseean/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Why The Tennessee Titans Could Pull It Off

I give the Titans an edge over the Bears because the AFC South is not as loaded as the NFC North. After Tennessee lost the division title in 2022 after seven consecutive losses to end the season, the team finished 6-11 in 2023 with too much inconsistent play.

The No. 28 offense struggled most of last season, but QB Will Levis showed some promise in his nine starts as a rookie. He should be helped by a pass-oriented new head coach in Brian Callahan, the former Bengals offensive coordinator. 

>>READ: Quarterbacks Who Could Break Out in 2024

Levis also has a pair of potentially dynamic wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and free agent signee Calvin Ridley. Callahan signed Tyler Boyd from Cincinnati as the No. 3 receiver, unless former first-rounder Treylon Burks finally emerges.

RB Tony Pollard will try to fill Henry's big shoes. Pollard will run behind what should be an improved offensive line led by recent first-rounders Peter Skoronski at left guard and JC Latham at left tackle, along with Lloyd Cushenberry, a top center signed in free agency.

Tennessee's defense was middle of the pack last season, and we’ll see if it improves. The unit is led by Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, a major trade acquisition at cornerback in L’Jarius Sneed and free agent linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. 

There should be draft help on defense from big bodied second-round DT T’Vondre Sweat, fourth-round LB Cedric Gray and fifth-round CB Jarvis Brownlee. EDGE Jaylen Harrell is a possible sleeper who could be in the rotation.

Houston is the favorite to repeat as AFC South champs after its big jump last season that included a playoff blowout of Cleveland before falling to Baltimore. The Texans made big moves by adding talented vets who are multiyear Pro Bowlers in DE Danielle Hunter and WR Stefon Diggs. 

The Titans have to hope Stroud has a bit of a sophomore slump, which is unlikely with the talent supporting him on offense.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts also are clearly in the mix in this division, so the Titans have a challenge ahead. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for them to claim the division title.  

Why the Chicago Bears Could Pull it Off

The Bears earned the fourth-place finish (which comes with a weaker 2024 schedule) because they lost the tie-breaker at 7-10 to the Vikings in the NFC North. Chicago is clearly on the rise, led by its defense that improved from 29th in 2022 to 12th in 2023. The Bears also had the No. 1 defense against the run.

In 2023, the midseason trade for DE Montez Sweat, who made the Pro Bowl, along with quality free agent signings such as linebackers T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds, led a late-season surge. The Bears won four of their last six games, including a Week 14 home upset of Detroit.

The biggest question in Chicago, of course, is whether first overall pick Caleb Williams can develop quickly into a top NFL quarterback and lead a passing offense that is loaded at wide receiver with DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and another first-round talent in Rome Odunze. 

Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett are an excellent tight end duo. D’Andre Swift improves the team at running back if he stays healthy. The offensive line must improve in pass protection because it allowed 50 sacks last season, the seventh most.

The Bears’ record should improve, but they play in a loaded division. They have five games to make up on the 12-5 Detroit Lions, who have one of the league’s best offenses led by newly extended QB Jared Goff. Detroit also has the added confidence of its run to the NFC title game.

The Green Bay Packers are in the way as a confident 2023 playoff team led by emerging star QB Jordan Love. Their late-season success included clobbering the Dallas Cowboys and nearly knocking off the 49ers in the postseason.

Then there’s the Vikings, who won 13 games in 2022, would’ve made the playoffs last season if Kirk Cousins hadn’t torn his Achilles and added help on defense in free agency and the draft. They have excellent skill position players on offense led by Jefferson, the best receiver in the league. If one of Minnesota's quarterbacks — Sam Darnold or, more likely, first-rounder J.J. McCarthy — plays well, then this team could reemerge toward the top of the division.