Last year, we called 10-6 after perusing the Bengals schedule. But it was a lot different 10-6 than how it ended up. How do you get there from here?
We had them winning against Denver at home and at Oakland and the Jets with losses at Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Green Bay.
Oh well, here we go again. We’ve got them going 10-6 again and it depends how you look at it. They’ve got the NFL’s fourth toughest schedule, but they can make hay before the bye. They play seven playoff teams, but get three of them at home. They play six games against 4,000-yard passers, but they get two of them in December at home.
The big stat? They play seven games against teams that had passing offenses ranked 14th or better last season. They play six games against quarterbacks who were ranked in the top nine in passing last season. It all means that a Bengals offense that has scored more than two touchdowns in just seven games the last three seasons has to jack it up to keep pace. The NFL’s No. 4 defense can only do so much.
SEPT. 12 At New England: The numbers say no. Carson Palmer and Marvin Lewis are 0-3 against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Pats are 8-0 in Gillette Stadium openers. Tom Brady is 7-1 in openers and the Pats have won six straight openers.
But these aren’t those Pats. In the first week of training camp 53 of 82 players had come to the club since the end of the ’08 season and Belichick emphasized the transition by removing all pictures and trophies associated with the previous decade. The Bengals, on the other hand, are in the third year of their transition that began with the elbow injury to Palmer in 2008. They look to be comfortable in their skin.
Plus, if you have to catch Belichick, get him early. He’s 19-13 in September with New England, his worst month. And while even Mike Zimmer defenses seem to have trouble covering tight ends, the Pats’ two prized rookies are playing their first NFL game. W, 1-0.
SEPT. 19 BALTIMORE: Can’t understand the hype about Baltimore. Certainly can’t understand how they get picked to finish ahead of the Bengals in the division. Palmer is 8-3 against Baltimore and with Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb the starting cornerbacks and Chris Carr with all of five NFL starts waiting in the wings, the matchup clearly favors the Bengals with their revamped passing game. Throw in that Palmer nemesis Ed Reed is out the first six weeks and you get the idea.
Palmer is 2-0 without the Hall of Famer in the lineup.
More mystery. The Bengals probably had a better offseason plucking weapons for Palmer than the Ravens did for Joe Flacco. They actually got a wide receiver with a long yards per catch career average in Terrell Owens and a stretch-the-field tight end. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is a great addition, but the Ravens receiving corps looks a lot like what the Bengals had last year. Who can go long? Houshmandzadeh averages 11.4 yards per catch and Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason 12.8.
And last year against the Bengals, the Baltimore wide receivers caught nine balls for 113 yards with Mason getting three of them for 31 yards and a long of 13. Plus, the Ravens are coming off a short week on the road against the physical Jets. W, 2-0.
SEPT. 26 at Carolina: They always seem to have one of these road games even in the good years. Remember Oakland last year with someone named Bruce Gradkowski? Matt Moore, the Panthers’ caretaker until Jimmy Clausen starts breathing, has all the makings of breaking their hearts. There’ll be a little bit of a letdown after the 2-0 start. The Panthers are a decent home club and are coming off a 42-38 decade in their building. L, 2-1
OCT. 3 at Cleveland: The Bengals take out their frustration on the Browns and with Mike Zimmer’s epithets ringing in their ears they’ll throw a tightly pitched game at an offense struggling to get its feet with new quarterback Jake Delhomme and no running game. With the “The Big Show” now in town, it won’t be as easy as it looks. But Palmer is 8-2 against the Browns and they always seem to be able to run the ball against them. Whether it is Corey Dillon in 1999 (192), Rudi Johnson in 2004 (202) or Larry Johnson (107 in ’09). And incumbent Cedric Benson has a 171-yarder against them.
Delhomme, coming off a season he threw 18 interceptions and lost three fumbles, already threw one to the Bengals in his last start against them. Safety Kevin Kaesviharn’s end-zone picked sealed a 2006 win over the Panthers at PBS. W, 3-1.
OCT. 10 TAMPA BAY: Hard to see the Bucs winning this one on the road with a 22-year-old quarterback in Josh Freeman and rookie receivers such as Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. The Bucs are coming off a season where they were dead last in the NFL allowing rushing yards per game and while the third pick in the draft (Gerald McCoy) and 35th (Brian Price) should help at tackle, they won’t so early in the season. W, 4-1.
OCT. 17 Bye
OCT. 24 at Atlanta: This one has all the makings of a shootout and the edge goes to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan because he’s at home in a dome and he’s got a Pro Bowl tight end in Tony Gonzalez and a burner in running back Michael Turner. Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey gives defensive coordinators fits because he’s so multiple.
Palmer is going to put up some numbers, too. The Falcons did make some improvements to the No. 21 defense with the free-agent signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson and the drafting of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round (with the pick right before the Bengals took Jermaine Gresham) but that won’t be enough to shore up a defense that allowed nearly 4,000 passing yards while getting just 28 sacks.
Still, the Falcons win a tight one with the dome advantage. And, for whatever reason, the Bengals are 2-4-1 under Lewis after bye weeks. L, 4-2.
OCT. 31 MIAMI: Trick.
The Dolphins are going to be better on a defense that ranked 25th in scoring last year. But not this year. True, they now are in their second year in a 3-4, but a lot of their guys are going be in their first year. Eight of their first nine draft picks were on defense.
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall is quarterback Chad Henne’s new weapon, but Zimmer seems to have his number. The Bengals held Marshall to four catches for 27 yards in last year’s opener against the Broncos.
Of course, Denver couldn’t run it like Miami can mash it with running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. But the Bengals are tough to run it on and the Dolphins are coming off a physical stretch with a game at Green Bay followed by a home game with Pittsburgh before coming to Cincy.
Treat. W, 5-2.
NOV. 8 PITTSBURGH: It doesn’t get any bigger. Monday night at home against their biggest rival.
The Bengals got over a huge psychological hump last year when they not only beat the Steelers at home for the first time in the Lewis era, but did it with a withering fourth quarter that caught the Steelers with 14 seconds left. The Bengals added even more steel to their psyche six weeks later after the Steelers bounced back with five straight wins. When Cincy exhausted them in the 18-12 tractor pull in Pittsburgh that beat them at their own punishing game, it sent the Steelers on a five-game losing streak.
Now Pittsburgh comes into the game with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a groove in his fourth game back from his suspension. But his team comes in at the end of grueling three-game road stretch that swings through Miami and New Orleans first. Plus, the Steelers revamped offensive line, anchored by rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, is going to get a handful from an active Bengals front. W, 6-2.
NOV. 14 at Indianapolis: It will be a shootout with Palmer and Peyton Manning and while the Bengals clearly have the better defense, the Colts have been doubly deadly in their building and in November since the turn of the century. With Manning calling the shots, they are 60-20 at home and 31-12 in November. It could come down to a field goal, but the numbers say it will be Manning’s field goal. L, 6-3.
NOV. 21 BUFFALO: The Bills offer slippery offensive threats with rookie running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Lee Evans, as well as returner Terrence McGee. But the matchup heavily favors the Bengals.
How long will it take Ryan Fitzpatrick to dethrone Trent Edwards at quarterback? Particularly behind an offensive line that allowed the second most hits on the quarterback in the NFL last season? And the Bills have no pass rush to speak of with the retirement of Aaron Schobel, their leading sacker in eight of the last nine seasons. Second-year linebacker Aaron Maybin only has his first name. His next sack will be his first NFL sack. The Bills are going back to a 3-4 defense, but that won’t help them improve their No. 30 ranking against the run. W, 7-3.
NOV. 25 at Jets: The Jets whisked the Bengals out of the playoffs last season with an easy 10-point win at PBS. And all they did was get better on defense. The Bengals got better on offense, but the combination of the Jets No. 1 defense and No. 1 running game makes it an extremely tough nut on the road. The Bengals should play them tougher and closer, but the Jets can be thankful on Thanksgiving Night for getting the edge at their new home. Remember, the Bengals never won at the old Meadowlands/Giants Stadium in 25 years and 11 games. L, 7-4.
Dec. 5 NEW ORLEANS: If Drew Brees had slipped a couple of more slots in the 2001 draft in the second round, he’d be taking snaps for the Bengals in this one. But they still got a five-time Pro Bowler at No. 36 in Chad Ochocinco (Brees went 32) and Palmer provides a worthy opponent. Remember, Brees threw for 510 yards back in ’06 for the second most passing yards ever against the Bengals, but Palmer beat him with three TD passes, 275 yards, and a 127.8 rating.
But their defense is a lot better now and the Super Bowl champs can score so many different ways that it not only devastates your defense, but your offense as well. You have to score to beat them, but you never have the ball. They kept it an average of 31:10 last year with a defense that held foes to 38 percent on third-down conversions. The Bengals defense had a heck of a year last year on third down and they were 38.6. L, 7-5.
DEC. 12 at Pittsburgh: The Bengals 10-game division winning streak comes to an end as well as the three-game skein against the Steelers. Only once since 1995 has one team beat the other more than three straight times in the series and that was the Steelers’ five-game streak from 2006-2008. Give this one to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He’s got the same defense back that finished fifth last season. L, 7-6
Dec. 19 CLEVELAND: The Browns, who very well could be coached by Mike Holmgren at this point, are going to get better and better this season. But not enough to beat a desperate and overdue Bengals team. Their defense is going to prove too much for a team that can’t run it in the cold weather. W, 8-6.
Dec. 26 SAN DIEGO: A huge game worthy of the Sunday night limelight on NBC. The Bengals have come so close to knocking off quarterback Philip Rivers the past two games and now they finally kick the door in with the help of some nasty weather. The last time the Bengals played at PBS on Dec. 26, it was 2004 and fans helped dig out the seats from a deep-freeze snow and they greeted the Bengals’ last-minute win over the Giants with a cascade of snowballs.
The weather is going to be a shock to the Chargers’ system. Rivers puts his 18-0 December record on the line early in the month in home games against Oakland, Kansas City and San Francisco on a Thursday night. The Chargers get a break with 10 days between the Niners and the Bengals, but it is 10 more days to loll in the sun before the mini-Freezer Bowl.
In ’06, the Bengals blew a 28-7 halftime lead to the Chargers at PBS. Last year, the Chargers had to beat them on the last play at home. Law of averages and Law of The Jungle prevails. W, 9-6.
JAN. 2 at Baltimore: For the whole ball of wax. The AFC North title and the division’s lone playoff spot. So it will be flexed to Sunday night and the Bengals figure to win a down and dirty and frozen slugfest. The brilliant but aging Ravens defense finally goes off into a proud sunset as the Bengals defense symbolically rules the game to pass the Steelers and Ravens D in stats and perception as the cream of the league’s most defensive-minded division. W, 10-6.
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