A distracting offseason highlighted by the antics of wide receiver Chad Johnson certainly didn't make things easy for the Cincinnati Bengals in their pursuit to put another tough year behind them.
They don't, however, expect those off-field issues to overshadow their ultimate goal for 2008.
The Bengals begin their quest for their second playoff appearance in 16 years on Sunday when they visit the Baltimore Ravens and new coach John Harbaugh.
Cincinnati (7-9 in 2007) opened last season on a positive note with a 27-20 win over Baltimore (5-11 in 2007), but went on to lose six of its next seven contests to fall effectively out of the playoff hunt.
Johnson, though, earned his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance after totaling a career-high 1,440 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
However, the outspoken receiver went on to endure a tumultuous offseason, highlighted by persistent trade demands. Perhaps the most bizarre of his stunts occurred off the field last Friday, when he legally changed his last name to "Ocho Cinco" - the moniker he gave himself based on his number 85.
While neither he nor the team would comment on which name would adorn his jersey on Sunday, Johnson was willing to divulge his renewed commitment to his team and the organization.
"I've got to be super-extra focused," said Johnson, who also worked through ankle surgery and a shoulder injury in the offseason. "I have a lot of making up to do to a lot of people - not only my teammates, coaches, you know, from the top all the way down."
Another Bengals receiver making news was Chris Henry, who was released in April following an arrest - his fifth overall - but signed a two-year deal to return to Cincinnati on Aug. 19. Henry is suspended for the first four games of the season due to his off-the-field problems.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, who will play Sunday despite suffering a broken nose during the preseason, will look for favorite targets Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who established career highs with 1,143 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007.
"You try to gauge talent, and it's tough to go in that direction because talent doesn't always win," said Palmer, who broke his own club records in completions (373) and passing yards (4,131) last season. "It comes down to cohesiveness of a unit, how well guys work together, how much they want it and how hard they work."
The Pro Bowl signal-caller helped direct one of the best passing offenses in the league, but Cincinnati's running game averaged 97.3 yards - ninth-worst in the NFL.
The Bengals expect to start Chris Perry at running back this year after he missed all of last season while rehabbing a dislocated ankle he suffered in late 2006. He'll fill the void left by veteran Rudi Johnson, whom the Bengals released last week.
Defensively, Cincinnati surrendered the sixth-most yards in the league last season (5,580). In Week 1, that defense will be tested by Baltimore's new-look offense featuring rookie Joe Flacco under center.
The former University of Delaware quarterback, the 18th overall pick in this year's draft, will handle the majority of the snaps for a passing offense that averaged a middling 189.7 yards per game in 2007.
Flacco, who completed 35 of 67 passes in the preseason, replaces Kyle Boller, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
"Our mantra is next man up. If one guy goes down, we pride ourselves on being prepared,'' said Derrick Mason, who led all Ravens receivers with 1,087 yards and five touchdowns last season. "We've seen what Joe is able to do."
Harbaugh, who coached special teams and the secondary for 10 years with Philadelphia, replaces Brian Billick, who was dismissed following a nine-year run as Baltimore's head coach.
He inherits a perennially strong defense led by 13th-year linebacker Ray Lewis.
Baltimore has dropped three straight meetings against the Bengals and six of the last seven in the series between the AFC North rivals.