This season the Bengals are not planning on changing the carefully orchestrated formula for success that worked so well last season: Run the ball a lot and play stingy defense. They are, however, hoping to improve the fortunes of quarterback Carson Palmer, and have added some players to help.

With that, they're hoping to leap from a playoff team to a playoff winner.

The Bengals were a success in 2009, by any definition of the word.

They went 10-6, swept the AFC North Division and made the playoffs for only the second time in the past 19 years. Even as one of the league's youngest teams, they established themselves as one of the top running teams and top defensive teams in the league.

To hear quarterback Carson Palmer talk about the season, though, you might not guess the team did so well.

"The ending was just terrible," Palmer says. "We had such high expectations. But in the playoffs, you lose and you're done. All the good things, the exciting season, seem worthless."

Palmer is talking about the Bengals' 24-14 wild-card playoff loss to the New York Jets. He goes on for a few minutes, uninterrupted, about the sting of the loss and the sour taste it left. Then, he talks about turning that next corner.

Getting there likely will hinge on Palmer himself. After losing nearly all of his 2008 season to an elbow injury, Palmer had a mixed bag in 2009. His late-game heroics keyed three early AFC North wins, but his 60.5 percent completion percentage on the season was the worst of his career. The two-time Pro Bowler threw for just 3,094 yards, which would have been a career low had he not missed the final three games of his first season as a starter. He threw 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Palmer, whose non-throwing thumb injury that bothered him all season has healed, has disputed any notion his arm or elbow wasn't right. The decrease in production has many factors: No true No. 2 receiver, no tight end threats (the team's ends combined for just 43 catches, 410 yards and two TDs) and an unwavering commitment to running the ball.

The latter may have had the most to do with Palmer's decrease in productivity.

"By running the ball more you have less chances to throw," head coach Marvin Lewis says. "Second, by running more, you allow yourself to play much better defense because they're not on the field as much."

The team's transformation to a running/defensive team has been by design. The Bengals had the NFL's ninth-best rushing offense and sixth-best scoring defense last season.

"We made a concerted effort, because of the nature of the division, to become a running team," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says. "We planned to run it and throw at a high efficiency rate but for various reasons we did not reach our goal (passing)."

The passing game was 26th in net yards. In its three previous seasons with Palmer healthy (2005-2007) the passing game ranked fifth, sixth and seventh.

The Bengals know that the passing game has to be better if the team is going to take the next step. There are few other question marks with this team; nearly every starter returns on both sides of the ball. That's why all eyes will be on No. 9 this year.

"Our offseason goal was to recharge the offensive unit, to enhance Carson's abilities," Lewis says. "By adding some pieces, he's now capable of better success."

Those pieces include two draft picks "” the team's No. 1 choice, tight end Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma), and No. 3 pick wide receiver Jordan Shipley (Texas), who could see time in the slot.

The biggest addition is wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who signed a four-year, free agent contract. Bryant, 29, averaged 58 catches, 898 yards and 4.5 TDs the past four seasons with some bad offensive teams (Buccaneers, 49ers, Browns). He has a 15.3-yard per catch career average, so he's going to be counted on to stretch the field"” something that was sorely lacking last season.

With Chad Ochocinco (48 yards from becoming the 33rd NFL player to reach 10,000) and Bryant outside, and Shipley, Gresham and Andre Caldwell inside, there is no reason Palmer can't rebound.

"The ultimate team player," as Bratkowski calls Palmer, is OK with the team's offensive philosophy, which doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon based on what the coaches are saying.

"We're definitely a running team," Palmer says. "We're not just going to start throwing the ball all over the field again. If balance is what it takes to win, then that's what we'll do."

In seven years under Lewis, the Bengals are 28-1 when a rusher carries 25 or more times, including 8-0 last year with Cedric Benson, who has had a career resurgence with the Bengals after being out of football for a few months in 2008. His 1,251 yards last season rank as the seventh-best total in franchise history, and he missed 10 quarters due to a hip strain.

Expect a steady diet of Benson again this season, especially with a revamped offensive line, a question mark entering the 2009 season, returning. The Bengals allowed 29 sacks last season, ninth-lowest in the league. It figures to get even stronger with a full season of right tackle Andre Smith, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2009 who missed most of the preseason in contract negotiations and then the first 10 games after fracturing his left foot. Bratkowski said in May that Smith and Gresham are being targeted as starters from Day One this season.

The defensive side of the ball is anchored by the cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, also former No. 1 draft picks. Each had six interceptions last season. The linebacker corps is solid with Dhani Jones and Keith Rivers, the team's leading tacklers a year ago, and the front four will count on a pair of pass-rushing threats in Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom. The run defense (seventh in 2009) will need to be stout again: The Bengals play eight games against six of the top eight rushing teams from last season.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the defense will be getting full, productive seasons out of Odom and safety Roy Williams, two veterans who came to the team as big free agent signings. Both missed significant time last season because of injury. Odom led the NFL with eight sacks when he went out in game six with a ruptured right Achilles tendon. Williams, a five-time Pro Bowler, had 23 tackles through the first three games but injured his forearm and played only one more game before being placed on injured reserve.

"We need 12-14 games out of Roy Williams and Antwan to be totally healthy," Palmer says. "We got lucky with our cornerbacks being healthy all 16 games last year and need that again as well."

All things considered, the team appears to be in good shape, with no glaring holes. The Bengals entered last season with an average of 3.77 years of NFL experience per player, the lowest in the league, and the average age of 26.1 was fifth-lowest in the league. With added experience, success and more depth thanks to the draft, the team appears primed for another playoff run.

The schedule, however, will not do the Bengals any favors.

According the NFL, they have the fourth-toughest schedule (cumulative opponent record of 138-118). They play four of the other seven division winners, including both Super Bowl contestants; and 11 games against teams with non-losing records, including all five other teams that made the AFC playoffs. There are three prime-time games: Monday night against Pittsburgh, at the New York Jets on Thanksgiving Day and home against San Diego.

In the AFC North, Baltimore, which finished right behind the Bengals in the division at 9-7, appears loaded again, especially with the addition of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to a young, talented offense that is on the rise. The defense is always strong.

"They're probably going to be picked to win the division, to be honest," Palmer says. "It's probably pretty fair to say that."

Still, optimism is high in Bengal-land.

"This team is definitely one of the most mature and talented since I've been in Cincinnati," says offensive lineman Bobbie Williams, entering his seventh season with the team, all as a starter. "We're ahead of where we were last offseason compared to this one. We have our offensive line back. Our whole defense back.

"More weapons for Carson. I'm excited. But we haven't done anything yet."