CINCINNATI — The streak is already hanging over them.
The Cincinnati Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, a stretch of futility tied for seventh-longest in NFL history. They've had four chances in the last eight years, and botched all of them. They've gone to Houston each of the last two seasons and lost miserably.
Make it 22 years without a postseason win.
Just getting to the playoffs again in 2013 would be a huge accomplishment. No Bengals team has gone to the playoffs three straight years. But that wouldn't be enough.
"Guys are not going to be satisfied just getting to the playoffs anymore," receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "Now that we've been there a couple of years and our core guys have been together for three years, you see guys all focused toward that. There's a little better atmosphere for it."
Five things that will decide whether the Bengals get back to the playoffs and get that breakthrough win:
HANDLING THE EXPECTATIONS: The Bengals were considered a fluke when they snared a wild card in 2011 — only one of their nine wins that season came against a team that finished with a winning record. They were better last year, but lost to Houston again. While other playoff teams had significant turnover in the offseason, the Bengals brought their roster back virtually intact, making them an early favorite for the playoffs.
But veterans know the dynamic changes when a team is expected to win.
"One of the hardest things to overcome is expectations," cornerback Terence Newman said. "I think it's easy when you're the underdog because you have to work, people are discrediting you. They're not giving you a chance. Once you get so much expectation and people pat you on the back, some people start to believe it. It's just the worst thing possible."
The Bengals didn't handle the pressure in the playoffs. Now, they're going to have a little bit of it from the outset. Are they ready for it?
DALTON'S TIME: Dalton's first two seasons have been an unprecedented success by every measure except one. He's the first Bengals quarterback to lead them into the playoffs each of his first two seasons. Now, it's up to him to get them deeper into the playoffs. A lot of it is on Dalton, who had two of his worst showings in the playoffs.
"The team usually goes as the quarterback goes," Dalton said. "That's just kind of how football is. The guy that has the ball in his hands every play, I think that's just how the game of football works. For people saying that, they're not saying anything new."
If he wants to be ranked among the league's best, Dalton is going to have to do much better this time.
"You have to win big games — which he's won — but you have to win playoff games and then, obviously, win a Super Bowl to be looked at as an elite quarterback in the NFL," coach Marvin Lewis said.
EIFERT AND GIO: The Bengals' decision to keep their roster intact meant few openings for a rookie to make an impact. Two of them will get the chance.
Tight end Tyler Eifert was drafted in the first round and running back Giovani Bernard in the second to give the passing game more diversity and provide Dalton with more options. Also, the Bengals are counting on second-year receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to emerge and make a difference on an offense that ranked only 22nd last season.
"Something that's really good coming into this year is everybody's back, the whole offense is back, and we've added a couple of guys that are going to help us," Dalton said.
ADDITIONS ON DEFENSE: A unit that has been ranked in the NFL's Top 7 each of the last two years could be even better.
Free-agent linebacker James Harrison made the 300-mile move from Pittsburgh, bringing another pass rusher and a little fire to the defense. Top pick Dre Kirkpatrick missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury and is ready to start making an impact as an extra cornerback.
Harrison's no-nonsense attitude was on display during training camp when he shunned the HBO "Hard Knocks" film crews that wanted to focus on him. As cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones put it: "He gives you that swagger and that seal. You know when you mail off the letter you make sure you put a stamp on it. Well, he's the stamp."
MUCH DEPTH: Lewis has the deepest roster in his 11 seasons, giving the Bengals a chance to weather injuries without a significant drop-off — a problem in the past.
The depth allowed them to draft defensive end Margus Hunt — a track star turned defensive end at Southern Methodist — in the second round, knowing it'll be a while before he learns the game enough to make an impact. This year, they're not desperately trying to fill holes.
"As far as the talent on this team, it's unparalleled," Newman said. "You can look at different teams and say, 'Well they've got this, they've got this.' We have just as good as anybody else."
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