I hope you have enjoyed this look through this year’s schedule so far. While nothing is certain in June, I think it shows that there is good reason for optimism that the Bengals will make a repeat showing in the playoffs when January rolls around.
The Bengals do not face an AFC North opponent in the third quarter of the season. Instead, they tackle an NFC East team, then a trio of AFC West teams. The travel schedule also alternates evenly, going home, road, home, road.
If anyone is a Forrest Gump-ish “ya never know what yer gonna get” kind of team, it’s the Giants. They dropped two games to the 5-11 Redskins, lost to the Saints by 25, and lost to a visiting Seahawks team by 11. But they also beat the Patriots in Foxboro, which is incredibly difficult to do, and won three of their last four games to make the playoffs.
Of course, the potency of the Giants is in their passing game, with Eli Manning slinging the ball to Nicks, Cruz and now rookie Reuben Randle. They had the #5 passing offense in 2011, putting up nearly 300 yds/game last year and averaging almost 25 pts/game, so they are sure to give the Bengals’ secondary a heavy workout. Yet despite being so potent through the air, they were only 9-7. So a big passing day for the younger Manning will not necessarily doom the Bengals.
In looking at the numbers from last year, one key for bringing down the Giants is to limit their running game, which the Bengals ought to be able to do if the D-line is healthy. When held to 100 yds or less rushing last year, the Giants were 2-7. A big day by Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson will likely spell disaster for the home team.
Another key for the Bengals is a simple but proven football axiom: win the turnover battle. The Giants were 0-5 when losing the ball more often than their opponent last year. They gave away the ball 24 times and had only four games without a turnover in the regular season, so it can be done.
The Bengals will score their points as well against a team that gave up 25 pts/game last year and did little to upgrade their defense besides adding free agents who played little (Shaun Rogers) or not at all (Keith Rivers, Stevie Brown). So this game rests squarely on the defense to not give up an insane amount of passing yards, hold the running game in check, and get a turnover.
Odds of a Bengals win: Even
Last year, from week to week the Chiefs were either really good or really bad. I expect to see them play closer to the good Chiefs in 2012. Of course, I’m assuming that Matt Cassel stays healthy. If the Chiefs are forced to turn to Brady Quinn, I reserve the right to retract that prediction.
Unlike the Giants, the Chiefs will feature their running game with Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis, making the Bengals’ D-line the feature unit of the game plan again. Hillis has shown the ability to hurt the Bengals as a member of the Browns, and they cannot allow him to do it again. Meanwhile, the secondary will focus on limiting Dwayne Bowe and forcing Cassel to throw to other options.
The Chiefs’ defense, however, is an absolute enigma. They gave up 30+ points five times and gave up 24 points to a horrendous Colts offense last year. Yet they held opponents to 3 points or less three times as well as limiting the potent Packers to just 14 (although that had as much or more to do with the Packers than the Chiefs) and the Steelers to just 13.
With that in mind, balance will be the key on offense for the Bengals. The Chiefs do not have the DBs to contain A.J. Green without double coverage, which will open opportunities for everyone else. Around 25 carries and spreading passes all over the field should net the Bengals a win.
Odds of a Bengals win: Somewhat Favorable
If you are the begrudging type, you circled this game on your calendar as soon as the schedule was released to mark the return of the one who vowed never to play again at Paul Brown Stadium. I doubt this game will have trouble selling out. While I will savor watching CP3 notch yet another loss at PBS — something he had gotten pretty good in recent years — I hope to see the Raiders win the AFC West so that the Bengals can draft twice in the first round in back-to-back years. (I know it’s a long shot, but a man can dream.)
Last year the Raider proved quite effectively that they need Darren McFadden to be healthy in order to pose a real threat. That will be true again this year so that they can maintain a balanced attack, because Palmer throws too many pick-6s when the game depends solely on his arm. The Raiders scoring dropped by 4.5 pts/game after McFadden went down and CP3 took over under center.
Assuming that McFadden is healthy, the Bengals need to approach defending the Raiders just like they do the Giants. CP3 threw for just over 275 yds/game in 2011 (as opposed to Andy Dalton’s 212 yds/game) but were 4-6 with him as QB. So control the running game and take the ball away once or twice. And on offense, play them just like the Chiefs: stay balanced between the pass and the run, force them to double-cover Green (by letting him hammer them when they don’t) and use the whole field.
Odds of a Bengals win: Good
History says that the Bengals do not play well on the west coast, but you know what I think about the power of history. However, this will be a tough game for the Bengals, not because of history but because, unless they are as injury-riddled as they have been the past couple of years, the Chargers will be a lot better this year.
They invested heavily in their defense, bringing in Jarret Johnson and Atari Bigby as well as devoting their first three picks in the draft on defense. Many opponents won’t meet the 23.6 pts/game that SD allowed last year. On offense, the Chargers added Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal to their stable of receivers, and they also added Le’Ron McClain to punch holes for their running game. As a pretty complete team, this will be the biggest test of Dalton’s decision making and the defense’s flexibility since facing the Steelers.
The hidden factor for the defense slowing down Rivers & Co. is that they will have had plenty of practice in controlling similar offenses in the Giants and the Raiders. All three are pass-first teams, are prone to picks, but need to be able to rush for 100 yds to secure a win. Having such similar offenses bunched together will be either a big help or a big problem.
The offense will need to approach this game as though they are playing the Steelers, although they do not have the benefit of the familiarity that they have with the Evil Empire. Throw deep, work the middle, run, repeat.
Odds of a Bengals win: Slightly Unfavorable
As we head into the home stretch of the season, the Bengals will be 9-3, getting plenty of love from the national talking heads, and pushing the Ravens in the division. But the final quarter will be the toughest of all.