Preview: Bengals complete and ascending team

The Bengals have quietly become a model for recent success, drafting wisely and ending with a young, complete team that is leading the AFC North. We take an in-depth, position-by-position look at how it is all coming together and where there may be a weakness.

The Vikings have been playing the role of spoiler in recent weeks.

If not for the Vikings, the Bears would have a game-and-a-half lead with two games to play. If not for the Vikings, the Packers would be tied for first place in the NFC North. If not for the Vikings, the Eagles would have a two-game lead with two to play in the NFC East. The Vikings have been a roadblock in the way of all of them. It is with that momentum that the Vikings head into Cincinnati looking to strike a blow to the Bengals' division title hopes.

The 9-5 Bengals currently hold a one-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens. With a win over the Vikings, they would force the Ravens to win out in order to win the AFC North title. A loss to the Vikings would make next week's Ravens-Bengals game a winner-take-all. The Bengals are one of only four teams that are unbeaten at home this season, along with New England, New Orleans and Seattle. Getting a win will be difficult at Cincinnati, not just because the Bengals are very good at home, they have one of the most complete teams on offense and defense in the NFL.

Offensively, Vikings fans will get their initial first-hand look at what Andy Dalton can do. Dalton was taken with the 35th pick in the 2011 draft (joining wide receiver A.J. Green in an offense-driven draft), and Dalton was a pick that came 23 selections after the Vikings selected Christian Ponder. Dalton has led his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and was named to the Pro Bowl last year. As several Vikings players have documented over the last week, his greatest strength is being able to read and assess defenses quickly and get the ball from waist high to out of his hand as quickly as any quarterback in the league. He won't drop back and take a lot of time in the pocket, so the Vikings defense will have to counteract that by keeping an eye in the backfield and getting a hand in the air. More than half of Dalton's 16 interceptions this season have been the result of passes tipped at the line, so the Vikings will have to play with their heads up and ready to jump and stick up a hand quickly.

Few teams have had more between-the-tackles power players than the Bengals. Since 1997, their leading rushers have been Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson, Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. All of them have similar styles and earned the money gaining the hard yards between the tackles. Until this season, the Bengals hadn't put a speed back on the field since James Brooks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That has changed with Giovani Bernard's arrival. While BGE remains the primary running back, leading the team with 197 carries for 666 yards, Bernard has shown his electrifying big-play ability. He is averaging more than a yard more per carry than Green-Ellis, is second on the team in receptions with 49 and second in touchdowns with eight. He is a playmaker whose role is expanding with each game and, by next year, he could be the primary backfield weapon on the team. If anyone is going to make a big play on the ground, it will be Bernard.

The receiver corps is young and deep. It is headed up by A.J. Green, who leads the team with 87 catches for 1,268 yards and eight touchdowns. He's been an All-Pro since his rookie year and he has quickly become a franchise receiver in the discussion to be the next-best behind Calvin Johnson. When you have an elite receiver, he needs complementary players to escape constant double-teams and rolling defenses to his side of the field. The Bengals are finding those complementary players in Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Sanu has caught 42 passes and is a primary chain-mover, a player who makes receptions that turn into first downs. Jones has become an explosive threat in the offense. He has 40 receptions, but nine of those have gone for touchdowns. Adding to the mix are tight end threats Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. They have combined for 81 catches for 851 yards and five touchdowns, making them a dual threat that will test the Vikings' linebackers.

The Bengals offensive line has undergone a recent reshuffling as left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who started 10 games there, has moved to left guard after starter Clint Bolig was lost for the season. Over the last two games, he has been replaced by Anthony Collins. At right guard, Kevin Zeitler is listed as the starter, but Mike Pollak has started the last four games and is expected to start Sunday. With the Bengals trying to find the right mix on the O-line, the Vikings could try to take advantage of it by blitzing hard and finding the inconsistencies in their technique as a work in progress as a line unit. The interior defensive line seems especially vulnerable.

Defensively, the Bengals may not end up with many Pro Bowl candidates, but they are as stout a defense as there is in the NFL. However, they have suffered some key losses that have forced the Bengals to go to the "next man up" philosophy.

Up front, the Bengals lost defensive tackle Geno Atkins in late October and, with him, they lost the defensive line leader and best athlete. But the team still has Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson at defensive end and designated pass rusher Wallace Gilberry, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks. Dunlap has seven and, before he was lost in the ninth game of the season, Atkins had six. Atkins has been replaced by Brandon Thompson, who lines up next to massive nose tackle Domata Peko, who will remind Vikings fans of a wild-haired Pat Williams, capable of taking two offensive linemen with him and clogging the middle running lanes.

The linebacker core is a strange mix of old and new. In the middle, Rey Maualuga is a polarizing player among analysts. Some see him as a veteran who does a solid job and others see him as an injury-prone player who gets burned far too often and doesn't have sideline-to-sideline ability. On the outside, second-year man Vontaze Burfict has been a value from the day he showed up. In the first Viking Update mock draft of 2012, we had Burfict rated as very late first-round pick based solely on film and talent. But he became the poster boy for what the NFL Scouting Combine can do to a player. Bad interviews and bad workouts dropped him like a stone. But since the Bengals took a chance on him, Burfict has played at a high level and has quickly become a leader of the defense. It will be strange to see James Harrison on the outside for the Bengals. The longtime Steelers playmaker, Harrison signed a free agent deal and, while his production has been limited, he still can make plays that end drives or create turnovers.

The secondary suffered a loss with the season-ending injury to cornerback Leon Hall, and a recent knee injury to cornerback Terence Newman has him doubtful to play, pressing the depth of the cornerbacks, where Pacman Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick will be the starters.

The Bengals are a team that may be the model for other organizations to take a critical analysis. They have devoted drafts to one side of the ball in one season and the other side the following year. In the process, they have quietly built a team that has surpassed the Steelers and Ravens – two of the best-run franchises in the NFL in terms of sustained success – and are ready to make a move upward in the mix for AFC dominance.

Will they be the next saying "if not for the Vikings?" Stay tuned.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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