In the shadow of the downtown skyline in Cincinnati, where the Bengals relocated their training camp after 15 years of summering in the rolling hills of Georgetown, Kentucky. The team has been working out at Paul Brown Stadium and on the adjacent practice fields, where the crowds have been near capacity -- fans have been turned away at recent practices. "It's been a real positive, a great move for the fans," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "But it's also been something different for the veterans. There's been a lot of change here -- good change."
There's a great energy surrounding this young and talented Bengals team, which is coming off a promising 9-7 season and third playoff appearance under Lewis. Year 2 of the Andy & A.J. Era begins with heightened expectations; everyone here is ready for the Bengals to take the next step and make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years and win their first playoff game since 1990. The Bengals recently announced that games against Pittsburgh and Dallas had already sold out -- it was the earliest since 2008 the team announced they were closing in on sellouts. The day I dropped in on camp, fans packed the bleachers to capacity and watched a mid-afternoon practice in the 90-degree heat; afterwards they strolled across a parking lot to the Great American Ball Park, where the first-place Reds were opening a big weekday series. Not a bad time to be a sports fan in Cincinnati.
"Andy went through a lot last year," says Lewis. "Between getting married, the draft, and wondering when Carson [Palmer] would walk into the room, he just went through a lot -- and he handled it remarkably well. He's ready to take the next step. Between him and A.J., we hit a couple home runs."
How much has Cincinnati's stock risen? After not playing a primetime game all last year, the Bengals are slated for three this year: they open the season on Monday night at Baltimore, play a home Sunday night game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 21 and a Thursday night game at Philadelphia on Dec. 13. Cincinnati has a number of key AFC North games early -- four division games are in the first seven weeks of the season. The Bengals then go nine weeks without facing a division team until it finishes with a bang: at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore.