Guessing the schedule during the offseason is a dicey proposition, so I am not trying to call wins and losses here. Instead, I am pointing out interesting factors to the game based on how teams did last year, how they approached free agency and the draft, and how they might square off against each other.
What the schedule takes away in the first quarter, it gives back in the second quarter with three games out of four at home. The Bengals will put themselves in a good position if they can climb to 6-2 by the halfway point of the season, which would afford them the ability to play .500 in the tougher back half of the season and still make the playoffs. That might sound like last year, but the Bengals will have to beat a couple of good teams to win 4 of the final 8.
The series of young QBs continues as the ever-rebuilding Dolphins bring Ryan Tannehill north to play at PBS. But despite having the third QB taken in the draft, this tilt will be defined by the running game.
The Dolphins added Lamar Miller to a crew of backs that includes Reggie Bush and Steve Slaton. Despite losing Brandon Marshall and having few proven receivers already on the roster, they waited until the 6th round before they drafted any receivers and added only the less-than-potent Legedu Naanee in free agency. I cannot help but question the wisdom of drafting a QB at #8 and then giving him so few options to throw to. Perhaps their front office will be combing the waiver wire regularly as other teams cut receivers through the summer.
The Dolphins will be the biggest test of the D-line since facing Ray Rice to open the season. But unlike against the Ravens, the Bengals will be able to load the box more against the Dolphins. And as they begin to use Still and Thompson more in the rotation, we should see the run-stuffing line in full form by this game.
The Dolphins feature a tough run defense of their own, ranking #3 in 2011. But like their receiving corps, they did nothing to help their #25 ranked passing defense, making this game the quintessential pass-to-open-the-run attack. I don’t know if he will exceed it, but in this game I can see Andy Dalton challenging his high water mark of 383 yds passing against the Ravens last year.
Odds of a Bengals win: Good
Having already played the Eagles, the Giants, the Ravens, the Bills, and now the Bengals twice, I can envision a worst-case 1-5 start… or just maybe a 2-4 start… looming in Cleveland, with the perennial cauldron of frustration beginning to boil over as fans start turning on coaches and the front office. On the other hand, a best case scenario in Cleveland would be that the Browns fans who argued with me last month are right and that Colt McCoy was the singular fault of the offense, making Weeden the conquering hero who cures all of the drops by receivers and — combined with Richardson — makes Cleveland an offensive juggernaut.
Other than being “offensive,” I am not seeing so much of that best case scenario.
This game will be a tougher challenge than the first act, with the game being in Cleveland and with Weeden having another month to gel with his receivers. But as the Browns progress, so will the Bengals. The stout run defense limits Richardson’s effectiveness, and they find enough success in a balanced run/pass game to offset the growth in the Browns’ passing game.
Odds of a Bengals win: Good
The first of three straight games at home, the Bengals square up with the Evil Empire on Sunday Night Football. The Bengals will throw everything they have at the Steelers as they head into their bye week, while the Steelers will be well-rested as they return from an extended, 10-day break as their bye week follows a Thursday game.
The Steelers focused on their O-line in the draft, both to protect Roethlisberger and to bolster their average running game. That line will get its third tough test of the season against the Bengals, having already faced the Jets and the Eagles. Those two games will be an indicator to whether the Steelers can run on good defenses. Their passing offense should still be good, although I am curious if new OC Todd Haley will limit Roethlisberger’s mobility in an attempt to keep him from getting hit so much. They will be a big test of the solidity of the secondary.
Likewise, Dick LeBeau’s defense will be a great gauge on the growth of the offense from last year, particularly in the passing game. I don’t see the Steelers repeating as the #1 over defense, but they will still be quite good.
This game will be more evenly matched than some Steelers fans will be willing to admit. But even if the Bengals are slight underdogs, there are a few small keys that will give a victory to the home team. 1) Most importantly, don’t get behind early. LeBeau loves to make opponents one-dimensional. 2) Hold field position. Special teams will be good enough to do that. 3) Get one turnover. And don’t give up one. 4) Get three or more sacks.
Interesting, I noticed that in 2009, when the Bengals swept the Steelers, that the Bengals were outgained in both games. But they followed those four keys, and they walked away winners both times.
Odds of a Bengals win: Even
I will readily admit that this is the most difficult game on the schedule to judge right now because of the switch from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning. That is a radical change in offensive style. Given that the Bengals have never beaten Manning in the regular season, this could be a tough one and a high-scoring affair.
Manning doesn’t need HoF receivers to thrive, but the Broncos’ best WRs right now are Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. They brought back the aging Brandon Stokley (I still bristle at his name) as well, who played with Manning in ’03-’06. Oh, and they have Andre Caldwell! The one guy he does need to succeed: Ryan Clady. Clady’s play has diminished year to year. As the protector of Manning’s blind side, he could put Manning — who is not the most mobile of QBs — in jeopardy if he does not return to his younger form.
While the Broncos should be more conventionally potent, they did little to upgrade their #20 overall defense besides add a pair of DTs, one through free agency and one through the draft. Von Miller is special, but he can’t cover the entire field. The marquee matchup will pit A.J. Green against future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey. Green must prevail to stretch the field and allow the running game some room to maneuver.
Odds of a Bengals win: Slightly Favorable
As the weather cools, I look for the Bengals to be 6-2 as they prepare for the tough stretch in the schedule.