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CINCINNATI – Even if the Bengals reach the playoffs for an unprecedented fourth straight season, it'll be considered mostly irrelevant unless they win at least one more.
Harsh, but accurate.
The defending AFC North champions are in what amounts to uncharted territory for their franchise. They've put together the best streak of regular-season success since their debut in 1968, reaching the playoffs three years in a row.
Now, it's time for the next step.
They've gone 0-3 in the postseason over the past three years, extending one of the NFL's longest streaks of playoff futility. They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the sixth-longest such drought.
They've kept their roster virtually intact, settled on Andy Dalton as their leader by giving him a six-year extension, and set out to do much more than win another division championship.
"We have to win one in the playoffs," owner Mike Brown said. "We are fully aware that didn't happen. It sticks in our craw. First, we have to get the opportunity again.
"That is a long, hard road. We have a tough schedule, we respect our opponents, we take nothing for granted. But in our hearts — in my heart, too — I think we stack up OK and we are anxious to prove we are going to be a successful team again."
Success will be defined by whether they get to the playoffs and keep going past that first game.
Things to watch in the Bengals' attempt to break their long drought:
CAN DALTON BREAK THROUGH: He's had three of the best regular seasons by any NFL newcomer. Only Joe Flacco, Pat Haden, Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar have led their teams to the playoffs in each of their first three seasons as Dalton did. Yet no matter how well Dalton has played during the regular season, he'd done his worst in the three playoff games, including a 27-10 loss to San Diego last season that featured his three turnovers in the second half.
Much of it falls on his shoulders.
"I don't feel any added pressure," he said. "I don't think this team does. We have improved every year. We haven't gotten the win in the playoffs that we had been planning to get, but the team has gotten better overall."
GIO AND THE NEW GUY: New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants the Bengals to be more balanced to take some of the pressure off Dalton. They drafted Jeremy Hill in the second round and installed him as the backup to Giovani Bernard, who takes over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the starter. Cincinnati's running game ranked 18th in the league last season.
"Everybody says, 'Run the ball and the pressure will be taken off (Dalton),' but if you don't run it effectively it won't do that," Jackson said.
A.J. EVEN BETTER: Three-time Pro Bowl selection A.J. Green hired a chef in the offseason and put on upper-body weight to help him fend off defenders better. He's looking to do even more as he's coming off another sensational season — fifth in the NFL in yards receiving (1,426), sixth in catches (98). His 260 catches are the most in NFL history for a player in his first three seasons.
GENO'S RETURN: Defensive tackle Geno Atkins tore the ACL in his right knee last Oct. 31, costing the defense one of the NFL's top interior linemen. It still finished third overall in yards allowed. Atkins is back, though not yet in full form. He got into the third preseason game for 13 plays and had trouble getting through blockers. Cincinnati offered rising star linebacker Vontaze Burfict a contract extension, but lost defensive end Michael Johnson to free agency and could use Atkins back in form to help pressure quarterbacks. The Bengals also are looking for a breakout year from end Margus Hunt, a second-round pick in 2013 who played sparingly as a rookie.
MARVIN'S CHALLENGE: Dalton isn't the only one getting a lot of attention in the playoff-win-or-else spotlight. Marvin Lewis is 0-5 in the playoffs as the Bengals head coach. He has two new coordinators as he enters his 12th season — Jackson on offense, Paul Guenther on defense. Although he got a one-year extension through the 2015 season, Lewis has a lot at stake.
Only Jim Mora started his coaching career with more consecutive playoff losses (six). The five straight playoff losses are tied for second-most overall — Marty Schottenheimer, Mora and Steve Owen lost six each. And the five straight playoff losses are the second-most with one team, trailing only the Giants' Owen, who lost six playoff games in an 11-year span from 1939-1950.
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