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Bengals ready to live among the big boys?

If the Bengals do Hard Knocks, they'll be welcoming higher expectations.

If the whispers are true and the Cincinnati Bengals are returning to the all-access reality show "Hard Knocks" this August, it doesn't necessarily mark a return to the outrageous and flamboyant days of the Bengals' not-too-distant past. 

It does, however, mark the end of any anonymity this group has enjoyed over the last two seasons, seasons that would be deemed successful but not successful enough. The Bengals won the AFC North the last time they were featured on the show in 2009, then crash-landed in 2010 with the Ochocinco/Terrell Owens sideshow, among other problems. 

Almost a total restart in 2011 was necessary and has been positive. The Bengals cleaned out the locker room, turned over the depth chart and in the last two years have been the AFC's second Wildcard team. The roster has been less wild, more mature and more productive. The seasons, with few exceptions, have been distraction-free. A.J. Green is a budding star at receiver who brings zero of the baggage his predecessors brought. 

If the Bengals invite the cameras and the bright lights -- literally and figuratively -- into this year's training camp, they're inviting increased expectations. That the team has to sign off and be fully on board for a full invasion of HBO cameras says they believe they can handle everything that comes with turning a crucial training camp into a national production. 

It says the Bengals believe they're going to be good in 2013, and good enough to handle all that comes with it. 

This was already going to be a huge season for Andy Dalton, and for the organization as a whole as it relates to impeding contract situations involving the team's gifted defensive line group and specifically underrated star Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and 2013 franchise player Michael Johnson. 

Outspoken and not necessarily G-rated defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer deserves a head-coaching opportunity, and the only way he'll get one is to again put together a defense that belongs in the discussion of the league's best, even if everybody doesn't know it. 

There's risk in opening the doors to the "Hard Knocks" cameras. The Bengals and coach Marvin Lewis see reward if it helps bring out the best in what they have. 

For two years they've flown under the radar. In 2011 it was because they'd been picked by some as the league's worst team. In 2012, they spent October playing like they weren't worthy of any national attention. They followed a four-game losing streak with a four-game win streak, though, and got back to the postseason after beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 15. 

The AFC North is still rugged, headlined by the defending Super Bowl champs, and the Bengals know exactly what they're chasing. This season will provide the answer on whether the Bengals are still just the Bengals. If every moment of training camp is caught on camera, many more folks will be paying attention. 

The Bengals want to play with the NFL's big boys, beat them and live like they live -- with spotlight, with high expectations, with success. If this TV show deal comes through, they'll be on the radar in August. Starting in September, they'll have to prove they're worthy of such attention.