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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Loss to Bills would make Bengals' future look bleaker

The Cincinnati Bengals are trying to create a second window of opportunity for quarterback Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis.

The first window produced five straight playoff seasons and a 52-27-1 record from 2011 to 2015. Most NFL fan bases would sign up in a heartbeat for that kind of run. Except for one thing: The Bengals failed to win a single playoff game in those seasons.

Last year the window closed. No team makes the playoffs five straight years without seeing a bunch of players leave in free agency to get big pay raises.

Last year the Bengals lost receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. This year they lost their two best offensive linemen, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Dalton has made three Pro Bowls, but he's not a QB who can carry a team on his back. He benefited those playoff years from one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and one of the best receiving corps.

Cincinnati stands 1-3 in part because its offensive line has gone from a strength to a weakness and the roster is in transition. The Bengals are the third youngest team in the NFL, with an average age of 25.5.

"We said back in April there had to be a changing of the guard," Lewis said. "It is inevitable in the NFL. ... We've got some young, emerging guys, which is great to have."

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The Bengals still have superstar receiver A.J. Green, who's one of the top four wideouts in the NFL (with Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown). But the receiving corps isn't as good as it was, especially because star tight end Tyler Eifert can't stay on the field. He has missed 28 games the past three-plus seasons and will sit out Sunday's game against the Bills with a bad back.

The Bengals know Dalton needs upper-tier skill-position talent to thrive. They have drafted skill-position players with six of their 10 top-two picks in past five drafts.

Can the young offensive line and receivers catch on quickly enough? Can Dalton and Lewis weather the current dip in the Bengals' fortunes and stick around? How low will the Bengals sink this season?

All of that adds to the weight of Sunday's game against the Bills. With a loss to Buffalo, the specter of 4-12 looms larger on Cincinnati's horizon.

Defense on a roll: It's hard to see Buffalo racking up 24 points Sunday without the benefit of some turnover-induced easy scores. The 1-3 start is no fault of the veteran Cincinnati defense, which ranks third in the NFL and has outplayed all four offenses it has faced, including Green Bay.

The passing-game matchup is a mismatch in favor of the Bengals. Cincinnati has four former first-round draft picks at cornerback in Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, Pacman Jones and William Jackson.

However, the Bengals have not yet faced a strong running team, and the middle of the defense isn't as stout as the Carolina and Denver defenses Buffalo faced. The Bills will have to try to manufacture a run game against a Bengals defense that should consistently bring safety Shawn Williams near the line of scrimmage.

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The 30,000-foot view: Lewis, in his 15th year, is the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL behind only Bill Belichick. Cincinnati endured 12 straight non-winning seasons before Lewis arrived in 2003. He has taken the Bengals to the playoffs seven times but has no post-season wins. Lewis is a lame duck, in the final year of his contract. Bengals owner Mike Brown is renowned for his patience. The pressure on Lewis was evidenced by the fact he fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese after Week Two. New coordinator Bill Lazor has emphasized getting the ball out of Dalton's hands quicker and targeting Green more.

Game-breaker: A.J. Green. The Bengals' best player has 7,450 yards in six seasons and 506 receptions, which easily puts him on pace to join the career 1,000-reception club (14 players have reached that plateau). He's exceptionally acrobatic, great at making plays on the ball off the ground. Teams with good cornerbacks generally try to jam him at the line. It's not good to let him run full speed at a deep safety.

Weak link: Offensive line. The Bills need to win a defensive battle this week, which starts by controlling the Bengals' young offensive line. Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and right tackle Jake Fisher, the Bengals' top two picks in 2015, both are shaky in pass protection. Ogbuehi split time the past two weeks with Andre Smith, who last week made his first start in 89 NFL games at left tackle. The Bengals' starting right guard, Trey Hopkins, is out (knee). Marcell Dareus needs to get push on center Russell Bodine.

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Homegrown: Cincinnati's success under Lewis is no mystery. The team has the most homegrown roster in the NFL, with 40 Bengals draftees on the roster. The NFL average is 27. There were 57 Bengals draftees on active rosters on opening day, also the most in the NFL. The league average was 41 players.

"I grew up in Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the NFL, and every place I've been basically has built the team as much as it could through the draft," Lewis said. "So you're shaping and influencing your people all the time, as opposed to gaining a veteran player and trying to change habits. Our guys have done a nice job of selecting people who fit what we do."

Top rookies: No. 1 draft choice John Ross, the speedy receiver from Washington, is out this week with a knee injury. No. 2 draft pick Joe Mixon has taken over the No. 1 running back role from Jeremy Hill. He's averaging only 2.6 yards a carry, but it's not his fault. The few times he has had running room, he has looked good.

Stat for the road: The Bengals ranked 30th in the NFL in blitzing last season, rushing five or more just 17.2 percent, according to Football Outsiders. There's no reason to think they need to start gambling against the Bills.

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