CINCINNATI -- When you bring back pretty much everyone from a 12-4 team, you expect to be a 12-4 or a 11-5 or, worst-case scenario, a 9-7 team.
The Bengals are 2-3 and staring down the barrel of a road game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. After the 28-14 beatdown in Dallas, getting to the playoffs seems like a lofty goal.
So what happened?
Losing Tyler Eifert was a big blow, but it’s hard to imagine the Bengals would be 3-2 or 4-1 with a healthy Eifert.
Eifert would not have made much difference Sunday in Dallas. The Cowboys, scoring on their first three drives, all but rammed the ball down the Bengals' throats. Ezekiel Elliott rushed 15 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He had rougher days running against Indiana when he played at Ohio State.
The problem seems to lie with the linebackers. Pro Football Focus graded Rey Maualuga at 36.6 and Vontaze Burfict at 36.4. That’s poor on the PFF scale. When Elliott was running untouched through the middle Sunday, that was a linebacker problem.
This is the same defense that came close to leading the NFL in points allowed last year. All the starters, except Reggie Nelson, returned. Nelson’s replacement, Shawn Williams, grades out at 73.0, according to PFF.
The one thing that sticks out is the defensive line is getting older. Gene Atkins, 28, is the youngest starter.
The offense is not blameless in this either. If the Bengals could have held serve, i.e., scored a couple of touchdowns to the answer the Cowboys, thing may have been different Sunday.
Brandon LaFell’s numbers are pretty good, and he had his best game as a Bengal Sunday. But if you’re planning a defensive strategy against the Bengals, you take away A.J. Green and take your chances.
Ken Zampese is in his first year as offensive coordinator. It’s easy to pick nits with his playing calling. But when you don’t have a Eifert, and LaFell and Tyler Boyd aren’t scaring people, it’s tough.
Cedric Ogbuehi, the new right tackle, grades out at 46.0. Only Green, Andy Dalton and Andrew Whitworth grade above average.
The good news for the Bengals is they have time to rectify things. Their schedule -- after New England -- gets easier. I’ve still got them as a 9-7 team. If -- and this is a big if -- they can start playing defense like they did last year, they can be a playoff team.