The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to show they're better equipped to be a factor in the AFC after losing in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two years.
The Bengals made their opening case Thursday night with a 34-10 preseason win over an Atlanta Falcons team coming off a spot in the NFC championship game.
Cincinnati showed off new depth at quarterback and running back. The Falcons revealed glaring new concerns on their offensive line.
Here are five things we learned the Bengals' victory over the Falcons:
1. A NEW PARTNER FOR BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS: Bengals rookie second-round pick Giovani Bernard showed why many expect he will split playing time with Green-Ellis, the returning starter at running back. Bernard was quick to the line on his 1-yard scoring run, even though his overall numbers — 10 carries for 28 yards — may not excite fantasy players. Bernard also had a team-leading three catches for 16 yards. "I just want to go out there and perform, whether it's blocking or catching the ball," Bernard said. "I want to be that stand-up guy to do it."
2. THEY'VE GOT DALTON'S BACK: There's a two-man race to enter the season as the top backup for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Josh Johnson and John Skelton each made strong opening bids against the Falcons. Johnson, who spent his first three seasons with Tampa Bay before appearing in one game with Cleveland in 2012, had the longer audition and impressed coach Marvin Lewis with his running and passing. Johnson led the Bengals with 64 yards rushing, including a 43-yarder. He passed for 100 yards and a touchdown and was especially effective in the second quarter, when he led the Bengals to 17 points. Dalton, who played two series, didn't produce any points.
3. BIG QUESTIONS ON FALCONS' O-LINE: The offensive line was a major concern for Atlanta even before projected starting right tackle Mike Johnson dislocated his left ankle and broke his left leg in practice Tuesday. Johnson will have surgery next week and likely is lost for the season. Second-year player Lamar Holmes, who played in only one game in 2012, moved up as the starter. Coach Mike Smith says Holmes' strength is pass-blocking, but someone on the line must provide better run-blocking if Steven Jackson is to make his expected impact at running back. The most telling play of the game for the line came on third-and-2 at the Bengals' 16 in the first quarter. Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins blew past Falcons right guard Garrett Reynolds and stopped Jackson, forcing the Falcons to settle for a field goal.
4. BENGALS' DEFENSE DOMINATES: Sure, the Falcons were without receiver Julio Jones, who was resting his hamstrings, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who negotiated family time before the regular season into his contract. Still, it's notable that the Falcons were held to 268 total yards and one touchdown. This is expected to be a high-scoring offense led by Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Jackson, Jones and Gonzalez. It was a proud day for the Bengals defense.
5. FALCONS BETTER HOPE FOR RYAN'S HEALTH: Ryan was the only Atlanta quarterback to attempt a pass last season. If he misses any time this season, his backup may be Dominique Davis or rookie Sean Renfree. Davis struggled, completing 8 of 19 passes and making a poor decision when, just before being pressured out of bounds, he jumped and forced a pass that was intercepted by cornerback Brandon Ghee. Renfree was a seventh-round pick from Duke, and teams expect rookie quarterbacks taken in the seventh round to remain on the sideline.