Even after Wednesday night’s regular season opener that pitted the Dallas Cowboys against the Super Bowl champion, New York Giants and the triumphant return of football, only one thing is certain: we want more. Can you feel it? The Friday before Kickoff 2012. The proverbial calm before the storm is growing to a dull clamor and an orange and black sky is seeping over the horizon.
Who dey ready for dem Bengals?
A horribly rhetorical question; Cincinnati Bengals fans everywhere are carefully ironing their old Chad Johnson jerseys with profound chagrin and intently tracing stripes with orange and black face paint. Yes, it’s weird that they wouldn’t wait until game day to do that, but whose article is this anyway? Regardless, 16 squads stand in Who Dey Nation’s way of a second consecutive playoff berth. So how’s it all going to shake out?
I’ll be more than happy to tell you, starting with the month of September, as I kick off a 4-part series complete with predictions and analysis for every Bengals game this season.
Let’s do this.
WEEK ONE: CINCINNATI BENGALS (0-0) vs BALTIMORE RAVENS – MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned AFC North street fight to kick off this season of MNF, and there really isn’t a more fitting description for this series over the last six years. Every time these two teams lock-up, it’s always a hard-fought affair. Since 2007, every meeting between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens has been determined by one scoring possession with the largest margin of victory being eight points (2011: Ravens defeated the Bengals 24-16).
The Bengals have lost their last three games against the Ravens, and unfortunately, that streak will continue Monday night. The absolute key match-up will be Ravens RB Ray Rice against Cincinnati’s interior defensive line. While the Bengals’ rising star at defensive tackle, Geno Atkins will be active, there are still many questions surrounding starting defensive end, Carlos Dunlap and his back-up, Robert Geathers. Should both of them sit, it will be on first round bust, Jamaal Anderson to contain Rice and get to Ravens QB Joe Flacco.
Baltimore is introducing a new streamlined offense that implements the no-huddle, so I don’t trust the ailing Bengal defensive line’s ability to keep up through four quarters. I expect that a long, grinding touchdown drive late or a special teams score will decide what will certainly be a close game.
FINAL: Cincinnati 16 Baltimore 20
Top Performer: RB Ray Rice: 22 carries, 102 yards, 1 TD
WEEK TWO: CLEVELAND BROWNS vs CINCINNATI BENGALS (0-1)
If all the Draft pundits and scouts are right, this will mark the first chapter in a long, frustrating battle between the Bengals defensive front seven and Cleveland Browns first round selection, RB Trent Richardson. Fortunately, Cincinnati comes in with the stronger offensive arsenal overall, which will help them get the better of Richardson and the Browns this time.
The Browns come into this season with the short-term future of two of their youngest stars in flux. The aforementioned Richardson is coming off a second arthroscopic knee surgery while their promising corner, Joe Haden faces a potential four-game suspension for using the stimulant, Adderall. Both Haden and Richardson are still expected to play this week, but Haden may have to sit this game out if the league decides to take action against him. As for Richardson – who sat out the entire preseason – it may be too much to expect him to carry the team’s offense with a recovering knee.
Not to mention that the Bengals have done well against rookie quarterbacks recently – winning four of their last five games by an average margin-of-victory of 8.75. Also, the Bengals are just more offensive adept than the Browns run by first-year QB Brandon Weeden. One huge example is Cincinnati WR A.J. Green who recorded 65 catches for 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns, which is more than the Browns’ starting receivers’ – Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi – combined totals in every category.
This is a smart bet.
FINAL: Cleveland 13 Cincinnati 23
Top Performer: WR A.J. Green: 7 receptions, 111 yards, 2 TDs
WEEK THREE: CINCINNATI BENGALS (1-1) vs WASHINGTON REDSKINS
There are a number of sound logical reasons to like the Bengals in this game. One reason is that no projected Washington Redskins starter has ever scored a touchdown against the Bengals. Ever. Conversely, a bad reason to choose Cincinnati is Skins QB Robert Griffin III.
The Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor is ready to do some damage this year. In his first three preseason games, RGIII posted a 106.4 QB rating along with two touchdowns and no picks. Also, this will be his first game in front of the home crowd. Look, the Redskins are like the NFC’s Miami Dolphins in the sense that they just can’t seem to find the right signal caller. Washington has had 27 different quarterbacks in the last 27 years so their franchise karma has been slowly coming around to this game, when Griffin III christens his throne at FedEx Field.
There’s only a few teams that I think have what it takes to ruin RGIII’s parade; the Bengals are not one of them.
But the Redskins’ new look offense helmed by their dreaded franchise player won’t be the only factor. Washington’s edge rushers and linebackers are some of the best in the league at getting to the quarterback. Star Skins defenders, Ryan Kerrigan, London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo, and Adam Carriker combined for 23.5 sacks last year and should continue to terrorize offensive backfields as 3 of the 4 move into the prime of their careers.
Andy Dalton, beware.
FINAL: Cincinnati 13 Washington 17
Top Performer: Robert Griffin III: 13-21, 178 yards, 1 TD; 6 rushes, 57 yards, 1 TD
WEEK FOUR: CINCINNATI BENGALS (1-2) vs JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
At this point, the Bengals stand at 1-2, which is already bad news for their hopes of repeating their playoff berth last year. Thank god, the next game is against the Jacksonville Jaguars, right? Not so fast.
Every team with high expectations has at least one trap game. This could be it for the Bengals. Cincinnati boasts one of the youngest teams in the league, but they are by no means rebuilding. This year’s team has a core group of players that the coaches and front office believe can win a Lombardi Trophy; but to take the next step and become a top-tier team, these are the games the Bengals will have to win.
This game will be a hard reminder of that because Jaguars QB and trusty punchline, Blaine Gabbert certainly looks like he has shaken off his damning critics and utilized his first training camp to improve his play. In the preseason, Gabbert recorded a QB rating of 95.0, a monumental improvement of his laughable 65.4 rating last year.
On top of that, Jaguars RB and resident Mighty Mouse, Maurice Jones-Drew has officially ended his holdout and will return to the field, so there’s that. Jones-Drew won’t play this weekend against the Vikings because he simply missed too many reps, but he will certainly be back in the saddle by the time Cincinnati rolls into town.
All that said, here’s why the Bengals pull this one out. Everyone has become weirdly infatuated with the Jaguars defense since they finished 6th in total yards allowed despite being one of the worst teams in the league last year. However, that may be an aberration because, since Mel Tucker took over as the defensive coordinator for the Jags back in 2009, the average defensive rank of his units has been 19. The Bengals should be fine here, especially QB Andy Dalton who had a nice showing against Jacksonville last year throwing for a couple of touchdowns in a 30-20 win.
I expect the Jaguars, like many of Cincinnati’s opponents this year, to do a good job stifling the run so it will most likely be on Dalton’s arm. Bengals in a nail-biter.
FINAL: Cincinnati 30 Jacksonville 28
Top Performer: QB Andy Dalton: 26-43, 317 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
A hard-fought battle to .500 in the month of September. Despite some standout play and exciting games, Cincinnati is still on pace to miss the playoffs. Will they pick it up in the second part of this series? Only one way to find out.