The last time the Bengals saw Paul Brown Stadium on the day after Christmas, the kids ran wild and knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs.
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson had his breakout game with 124 yards, wide receiver Andre Caldwell stunned the Chargers defense on a 39-yard bomb, and tight Jermaine Gresham got the Bengals on the board in the first five minutes with a red-zone touchdown.
Now A.J. Green, the wide receiver prodigy and fourth pick of the draft, comes out to play, too, in Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason game against the Panthers at Paul Brown Stadium (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12).
The Bengals will be romping around a new triggerman as rookie quarterback Andy Dalton makes his Cincinnati debut looking to recapture his razor-edge accuracy dulled by the Jets and the Jersey rain a few days ago.
But the Bengals are seeking reassuring signs from their backups as well as some of the starters. The subs have been smoked in the second half of the two games by a 20-0 margin, as the team mulls its depth.
With Cutdown Day set for Saturday, Sept. 3, that Sunday figures to very interesting as the Bengals scour the waiver wire. Are the third QB, fifth cornerback, fourth safety, and ninth offensive lineman here or elsewhere?
However it shakes out, it's new. Four different starters from the group that lined up against the Chargers are on offense, six on defense.
A roster look. (In parenthesis are the number of players usually kept at that position under head coach Marvin Lewis and the number of NFL seasons for that player):
QUARTERBACKS (3): Andy Dalton (R), Bruce Gradkowski (6), Dan LeFevour (2), and Jordan Palmer (4).
The encouraging things about Dalton are the poise against the blitz and his ability at the line to make checks and reads is impressive. But he said it. He knows he can't throw the ball like he did Sunday. Granted, he didn't get much help with an estimated five drops and at least once with each starting wide receiver there was a route glitch where he thought they were going to run something else.
The Bengals can live with that for a spell, but not the balls thrown behind the receivers or overthrown. Especially when no one was really in Dalton's face. They don't think it is going to be a problem because he's never been inaccurate, but they're seeking more consistency. Particularly on third down, where Dalton is 6-for-12 for 53 yards and a pick, for four first downs.
The others have struggled, too, but Gradkowski seems to be set in stone at No. 2. Kerry Collins he's not (81 wins and 177 starts compared to Gradkowski's six and 20), but he's shown he can win a couple of games off the bench, he knows what offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants, and he's a good guy to have in the locker room.
Palmer didn't play Sunday night, LeFevour didn't exactly light it up, and Terrelle Pryor is in Oakland.
WRS (6): Andre Caldwell (4), Quan Cosby (3), A.J. Green (R), Andrew Hawkins (R), Jamere Holland (R), Calvin Russell (1), Jerome Simpson (4), Jordan Shipley (2), Ryan Whalen (R).
Gruden can't say enough good things about Caldwell and it sounds like he wants him taking the load off Green and Simpson and getting in the mix with the starters. Shipley has converted two third downs on Dalton's two best drives. Cosby is the team's lone proven punt returner.
Whalen, the sixth-rounder from Stanford, still seems to be in good position for the sixth spot despite missing the first two games with a hamstring injury, and it looks like he'll be available Thursday.
People are buzzing about the speed of Hawkins and Holland and they're fun to watch on special teams with Hawkins covering kicks and Holland returning them. Holland is fighting the drops and the 5-7 Hawkins is fighting his size.
The 6-0, 190-pound UFL refugee Russell has looked pretty good in practice.
RBS (3): Cedric Benson (7), Jay Finley (R), John Griffin (R), Brian Leonard (5), Cedric Peerman (2), Bernard Scott (3).
It's going to be hard to crack the trio of Benson, Scott and Leonard, and it looks like Scott finally plays in his first game Thursday after missing the first two with a hamstring issue. He should get plenty of work because Benson has yet to run in the second quarter, although that could change in the third preseason game where starters traditionally get their most work.
It looks like Finley (ankle) is going to be out against the Panthers as Griffin bids for the practice squad. Peerman is also eligible.
FB (1): James Develin (1), Chris Pressley (3), Fui Vakapuna (3).
Pressley continues to run first team and that's saying a lot because Gruden is using the fullback frequently because he's often in the regular formation of two backs, more than the previous regime. Is Develin a practice squad candidate?
TE (3): Colin Cochart (R), Chase Coffman (3), Jermaine Gresham (2), John Nalbone (2), Bo Scaife (7).
Cochart, the free agent from South Dakota State, has really showed up as a blocker and looks to be making a pretty good run at the spot behind Gresham and Scaife. Nalbone has also showed off his physicality and some of the experience he gained playing two games with the Dolphins as a rookie last year. Coffman is trying to show he's more than just a receiver.
OL (9): G Clint Boling (R), T Anthony Collins (4), C Kyle Cook (4), G Otis Hudson (1), G Max Jean-Gilles (6), G Nate Livings (4), T Mathew O'Donnell (R), G Chris Riley (R), T Dennis Roland (4), T Andre Smith (3), C Reggie Stephens (2), T Andrew Whitworth (6), G Bobbie Williams (12).
The protection was better Sunday, but the Bengals would like to get some more movement in the running game. One play they hoped would go for more came on the second snap of the Jets game, when they went with their bigs and Benson got two yards.
But, then again, no one really runs on the Jets.
A real numbers game here. Boling is showing to be the team's most athletic guard and he came out of the Jets game with pretty good grades at both guards. H could end up being the backup center. Former Bengals offensive lineman Dave Lapham has praised Boling on the radio broadcasts, but he's lukewarm on other backup guards.
A quick thought. If this is the year the Bengals keep two quarterbacks, then they can keep 10 here.
Behind the five starters, Boling, and the two backup tackles, Collins and Roland, are seen as guys that can contribute. The Bengals also thought Hudson had improved dramatically before he injured his knee. He's expected to be back after the first month of the season
DL (8): E Victor Adeyanju (6), T Geno Atkins (2), E Carlos Dunlap (2), E/T Jon Fanene (7), Robert Geathers (8), E Michael Johnson (3), T Clinton McDonald (2), T Lolomana Mikaele (R), T Domata Peko (6), E James Ruffin (1), E/T Frostee Rucker (6), T Jason Shirley (2), T Pat Sims (4).
This is also quite a scrum. If the Bengals decide they can't find 10 worthy DBs, they may opt to keep nine and get to 25 on defense with nine linemen and seven linebackers. Maybe.
In the wake of the release of Tank Johnson, the defensive tackles played well against the Jets. It's going to be hard to move Peko, Atkins, Sims and McDonald out of the middle even as the man-mountain Shirley makes an intriguing bid. Sims (knee) says he'll return to practice this weekend and play in the Sept. 1 preseason finale.
The end spot is going to be something to watch. Geathers and Johnson are starting, but Dunlap hasn't practiced at all since the first week with a knee injury the club says won't keep him out of the opener. Fanene is working his way into shape and may or may not play Thursday. Fanene can also play tackle in the base and nickel, but Rucker can also play it in the nickel and has a history of producing on Sundays. Still, the savvy vet Adeyanju is having a heck of a preseason.
LBs (7): OLB DeQuin Evans (R), Stephen Franklin (R), OLB Thomas Howard (6), OLB Brandon Johnson (6), OLB Manny Lawson (6), OLB Dontay Moch (3), LB Rey Maualuga (3), LB Roddrick Muckelroy (2), LB Vincent Rey (2), OLB Keith Rivers (4), OLB Dan Skuta (3).
On Sunday, Maualuga had the type of hard-hitting, sideline-to-sideline game the Bengals think can make him a very good middle backer. Lawson is grinding through the switch at SAM from a 3-4 to a 4-3, trying to adjust to playing with more patience now that he's not lined up over the tackle.
It's believed that Moch's broken foot won't send him to IR and that he'll be available early in the season, spending the first couple of games on the inactive list. The question on Rivers (wrist) seems to be if he's in that same boat, or if he starts the season on the PUP list for the first six games.
With Moch inactive for the first couple of games, it figures the Bengals would keep seven here and Rey could be the last guy. Working with the second group, he and middle linebacker Dan Skuta led the team in tackles Sunday with five each. Evans, the CFA from Kentucky, continues to make a strong practice squad bid.
DBs (10, five CBs, five S): CB Fred Bennett (5), CB Brandon Ghee (2), CB Nate Clements (11), S Chris Crocker (9), CB Leon Hall (5), CB Adam Jones (5), CB Korey Lindsey (R), S Taylor Mays (2), S Jeromy Miles (1), S/C Rico Murray (2), S Reggie Nelson (5), S/C Tom Nelson (3), CB David Pender (1), S Robert Sands (R), CB Morgan Trent (3), CB LeRoy Vann (1), CB Jonathan Wade (5), S Gibril Wilson (8).
The Bengals are worried about what they've got beyond their starters. Hall and Clements are solid at corner and Trent has played well at times, but there are moments he gets the wrath of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Like on Sunday, when he didn't tighten up on Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes on fourth-and-one and let him catch a two-yard pass in front of him.
But after those three, Wade can be a competent fourth corner, but the Bengals need at least five, could use six, and no one else has really stepped up, although Pender's speed is interesting. Last year's third-rounder, Ghee, has barely played this camp with what is believed to be a hamstring problem.
Crocker and Nelson are the solid safety starters, but ...
It may be purely coincidence, but less than 24 hours after the backups got vacuumed on Mark Sanchez's 99-yard drive and raised Lewis' boiling level, the Bengals pulled the trigger on the two-week-old Taylor Mays deal.
It would be hard to see them cutting Mays after trading for him and they're not going to have enough time to make any kind of determination on him before Sept. 3, so you figure he makes it. But he's a question mark, so does that mean they have to keep five safeties instead of four?
Wilson gets his first action since ripping up his ACL a year ago, and if it looks he can hold up he has to be the leading candidate because of his brains and experience.
But the Bengals would also like to develop Sands and Miles, both excellent athletes who have found a steep learning curve. Miles can really run and is very good on special teams. The 6-5 Sands, the fifth-rounder out of West Virginia, has been an eye-opener with his size, speed and range, but Jets tight end Dustin Keller showed how raw Sands is on that 43-yard catch when Sanchez was backed up on the 1-yard line.
And then there is the matter of finding a swingman that can play both so the Bengals don't have to keep 10 DBs. Although Tom Nelson can do it, Rico Murray has had a pretty good preseason. A free agent out of Kent State, Murray has been cut after each of his two preseasons and signed to the practice squad. But he's a grinder who always seems to show up and he can play all the spots as well as special teams.
Plus, the Bengals may have to keep a spot open for Adam Jones (neck) even though he has yet to practice if they decide not to PUP him (ice him for the first six weeks of the season). So maybe they have to keep 10.
Whatever happens, the DB situation is probably going to dictate the numbers they keep on the D-line.
SPECIALISTS: LS Clark Harris (3), P Kevin Huber (3), K Mike Nugent (7), K Thomas Weber (R).
This is the best preseason of Huber's career and he was the Player of the Game in New York with a 77-yarder, four inside the 20, and one on the 1-yard line. Nugent was perfect for Georgetown and Harris has been as automatic as sunrise.