The 2012 season is shaping up to be an exciting one for us fans. Over the next three months, we will be reminded innumerable times that the Bengals have been to the postseason in back-to-back season only once… 30 years ago.
I, for one, am ready to plant the flag and assert that this mystic curse of history will be broken in 2012.
This is not 2006 with its suddenly-less-opportunistic defense. Nor is this 2010 with its seemingly never “on the same page” offense. This is 2012, built on a surprising, better than predicted team that made numerous improvements on offense and bolstered the defensive line. The roster is not perfect, but there are plenty of reasons to anticipate a long-awaited repeat season.
One difference from 2006 and 2010 is that the Bengals are not playing a division winner’s schedule this year. Despite making the playoffs, the Bengals were still third in the AFC North, and so will play a third place schedule. Most history referencers will not remind you of that.
But to get a good look at the reasons for optimism, let’s have a run through this year’s schedule.
The Ravens announced their intentions to dominate the 2011 season by dropping a surprising 35-7 beatdown of the Steelers at home. The NFL schedule-makers decided to put the Bengals in the same position by opening their season in Baltimore, and then they upped the ante by putting the game on Monday night for the whole country to see.
The Bengals will likely be in flux at linebacker with the potential suspension of Rey Maualuga, making Dan Skuta or Roddrick Muckelroy the replacement starter in the middle. With Ray Rice (who is 3-0 against the Bengals when he carries the ball 20+ times) looking to prove that his holdout against the Ravens’ franchise deal did not hamper his productivity, the starting Mike backer will have his hands full, whomever he is.
The Ravens, however, are adjusting to several key losses since the end of last season. As we all know, they lost the Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs, to an Achilles injury. Those are huge shoes for any replacement to fill, even a highly touted rookie like Courtney Upshaw. The defense must also replace DE Cory Redding, who followed coach Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis, as well as OLB Jarret Johnson, who moved to sunny San Diego in free agency. Those are three key pieces who will be missing in this game. Ben Grubbs will also be missing from the O-line, forcing some shuffling as they incorporate the rookie tackle Osemele to the line.
This will be an outstanding game. The Ravens’ passing attack, which is more proven, will try to test the Bengals’ secondary (even if they boasts six former first round CBs) but the key for them will be if Ray Rice can gain traction against the Bengals’ healed D-line. Meanwhile, the Bengals will try to spread out the Ravens’ defense and confuse a suddenly younger (except for Ray Lewis) LB corps by flooding the field with 3 and 4 receivers while changing speeds on the ground with BJGE and Bernard Scott.
Odds of a Bengals win: Even
This game will be determined primarily by who wins the battle between the Bengals’ D-line and the Browns’ O-line. (I definitely favor the Bengals’ D-line.) The Browns’ passing game struggled last year, and Weeden will need time in his second career start to change that. Atkins, Dunlap, Johnson and Peko will do their best not to give it to him, while the subs do their best to wear down their opponents and make a come-from-behind win difficult.
Another great matchup in this game with feature top-talents A.J. Green vs. Joe Haden. Haden limited Green to only 3 catches in round 2 last year, but Green got 110 yds on those 3 catches. The Browns will trust Haden to cover Green without much help and double-cover someone else. The winner of this matchup will help his team significantly.
Where the Bengals will win on offense is with their tight ends and running backs. The loss of Phil Taylor will make the O-line’s job easier, although Sheard must be handled. I see a productive running day, plus Gresham, Charles, Shipley and Sanu getting enough out of the middle of the field to keep the Browns’ secondary guessing.
Odds of a Bengals win: Good
Shanahan continues to rebuild in the tough NFC East, and RG3 was a fantastic place to start. And giving him a receiver like Pierre Garcon will improve their 14th ranked passing game. The threat of RG3’s mobility should help their 25th ranked rushing game, but he will need some productivity from another RB like Hightower or Helu to maximize that impact.
Unless RG3 crashes the NFL party in as big a way as Cam Newton did, this will still be something of a rebuilding year in Washington. Interestingly, Cam Newton’s first mediocre game last year came in Week 3 against a strong Jaguars defense. And in Week 3 this year, Griffin will go up against a top 10 defense for the first time after beginning the season against New Orleans (#24 in 2011) and St Louis (#22 in 2011).
The Redskins did little to improve their defense, one that gave up 117.8 yds/game rushing last year, through either the draft or free agency. The Bengals will seek to establish The Law Firm early, then keep the defense off balance by picking apart the middle and big strikes along the edges. No disrespect to DeAngelo Hall, but A.J. Green will win his matchup against the 10th year Pro Bowler.
Odds of a Bengals win: Good
For the second year in a row, the Bengals travel to Jacksonville to face a team trying to gain traction in the AFC South, having time to hit some stag do destinations as well. In the wake of the 2011 season, it is easy to forget that the Bengals trailed the Jags by 4 with 6 minutes left in the game. If I mention the busted coverage by Reggie Nelson to give up a 74 yd TD, I bet the memory returns.
With a strong defense (#6 in 2011) and MJD toting the rock, the offseason formula for the Jags was simple: receivers. They had the worst passing game in the league last year. So they brought in Lee Evans from Baltimore and Laurent Robinson from Dallas, then drafted Justin Blackmon. And to push Gabbert, they added Chad Henne as the backup QB.
The key for the Bengals will be keeping MJD in check again. They held him to 85 yds in 2011, and they will need a repeat performance by the D-line. They must pressure Gabbert to win the game with his arm. He may prove me wrong in 2012, but at this point I am not sure he can do that.
On offense, the Bengals will approach the Jaguars much like they do the Ravens, JAX being an almost-as-talented version of their division rival. Fortunately, they have a QB that has shown that he can win a game with his arm. They will again spread the field to flood and confuse the defense. Getting enough production from the receivers and tight ends to get the running game going is a key, as the Bengals must do better than the combined 73 yds that they got from Benson and Scott last year.
In the end, I expect this to be a much closer game than we might assume, as these two teams look fairly evenly matched if their passing game gets going. They will be better than the 5-11 team we saw last year, and they could very well be one of the surprise teams of 2012. I give the edge to Dalton over Gabbert, but this game could easily come down to a key turnover or kick.
Odds of a Bengals win: Slightly Favorable
As we pass the quarter poll, look for the Bengals to be 3-1 and posied to improve their record in October.