CINCINNATI — No more “wait ‘till next year” for the Bengals.
For many of them, this could be their last chance to get it right, get to the playoffs and finally win a game.
The Bengals have put a lot of money into keeping their team virtually intact for the past few seasons even though it went 0-4 in the playoffs.
With a dozen regulars in their final contract years, there will be notable changes in the next offseason, regardless of what happens.
How sweeping the changes?
That could depend upon how well they do in the postseason, and they know it.
“The mood for me: It’s just now or never,” second-year running back Jeremy Hill said. “It’s been four years in a row and I think if it doesn’t happy this year, then it’s probably never going to happen.
“I think something has to change.”
There’s not a lot of change in the Bengals, who went 10-5-1, got a wild card and lost in the first round at Indianapolis.
Hill is expected to become more of a focal point for the offense after his breakout rookie season — 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins looks better in his second year removed from knee surgery.
And Andy Dalton is taking a higher profile in the offense, becoming more of a leader at the urging of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
“I feel like I’ve done more from a leadership standpoint, of pushing guys and getting exactly what we’re wanting,” Dalton said. “I feel like I’m throwing the ball well. The ball is coming out of my hand really, really well.”
That’s all well and good, but none of it matters if the Bengals either fail to reach the playoffs, or if they get there and lose the first game again. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the longest current postseason drought and the sixth-longest in NFL history.
Five things to watch with the Bengals this season:
ANDY, ANDY, ANDY: There’s no getting away from it: Dalton is in the spotlight. The fifth-year quarterback isn’t going to win games with improvisation or a spectacular throw, but he’s shown he can get the Bengals to the playoffs by being steady.
Fans are restless, though, after those four straight playoff flameouts. Dalton got booed when he was introduced for a celebrity softball game at Great American Ball Park during the All-Star game festivities.
“But there are a lot of loyal fans, a lot of people that have backed me, that have supported me,” Dalton said. “That’s all I’ve heard.”
RUN IT: Hill’s emergence as a power back changed the look of the offense. Jackson wants to run the ball even more this season, with Giovani Bernard in the No. 2 role. Hill embraces it.
“My confidence level is through the roof right now,” Hill said. “A lot of expectations have been placed on me, and I take that with open arms.”
GENO & COMPANY: The Bengals were last in the league in sacks last season in large measure because the line got so little pressure. Atkins returned less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery and wasn’t the same player, but he’s looked good in the preseason.
End Michael Johnson returned after spending a season with Tampa Bay, giving the line a needed boost.
DRE’S DAY: With cornerback Terence Newman leaving for Minnesota, Dre Kirkpatrick finally gets to have a starting job. The first-round pick has been hurt and inconsistent during his first three seasons, but he impressed during training camp and the preseason.
“I don’t want to just be a starting corner,” Kirkpatrick said. “I want to be the best.”
THOSE BAD PLAYOFF NUMBERS: There’s no getting away from that ugly postseason history. No other team has lost first-round playoff games in four consecutive seasons.
Dalton’s four straight opening-round losses tie Warren Moon for the NFL record by a quarterback. He’s one shy of Dave Krieg’s overall record of five consecutive playoff losses.
Marvin Lewis’ 0-6 playoff record matches Jim Mora for worst to start an NFL coaching career. The six straight playoff losses tie him with Mora, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Owen for another NFL record.
The Bengals could release Dalton after this season without creating significant salary cap problems.
Lewis has one more year on his contract.
A lot’s at stake.